Yerko Difonis can’t see. He can’t hear, either.
And the 18-year-old, who was recently deported to his native Chile after flourishing in U.S. schools, hasn’t secured a student visa despite receiving a scholarship from an American university.
But don’t feel sorry for Difonis. The piano-playing prodigy – who, thanks to The Hear the World Foundation by Phonak, was retrofitted for a new hearing aid, and is a contestant on a Chilean talent show – is flying high.
"My disability has been hard to overcome, both in my ability to be independent as well as in my social life," he said, "but the Lord has given me the strength to grow despite, or perhaps because of it."
Born in Chile, Difonis' parents decided to emigrate from their native land in 1998. They became increasingly frustrated with the lack of educational opportunities for their son.
“When Yerko started school I was so mad because Yerko was not able to get the right education,” said Stefano Difonis, Yerko’s father. “I think that madness inside of me, you know the madness against the system in Chile, made me a little crazy and it made me take that decision with my wife to leave everything we had and move to another country.”
Traveling with just a few dollars, the Difonis family moved to New York.
There, Difonis attended and flourished as a student in New York City’s prestigious La Guardia School for the Performing Arts, studying both classical and jazz piano, he even went on to perform a solo at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“When I play, I feel like I can lose myself in the music, and I can express myself emotionally,” Difonis said.
This talented artist knows the piano, and it’s through every stroke of his keyboard that he best tells his story.
“I started playing piano when I was six, because my grandfather played a little keyboard and I became interested,” he said.
Playing the piano for Difonis came with challenges that most six-year-old boys don’t have to overcome. He was born with vision problems and diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, which hinders the ability for signals to send information to the brain from the eye.
His moderate to severe hearing loss, moreover, remains a mystery – and is irreversible in both ears.
Enter The Hear the World Foundation by Phonak. The organization is dedicated to raising awareness about the importance of hearing while offering solutions to people who can best benefit from the latest hearing technology.
In 2009, Difonis’ new special hearing aid allows him to hear high pitched sounds as well as the ability to recognize where the sounds are coming from.
Today, he is now more self-reliant, and his future has never looked brighter.
He has received a scholarship to the University of Rochester, where, once enrolled, he’ll be able to study music and another specialty of his choice.
U.S. Immigration law states that anyone deported at the age of 18 or older gets an automatic 10 year ban from being able to re-enter the country legally. Since, Difonis was deported at the age of 17 he is eligible for re-entering the United States with a student visa.
As a result, Hear the World is fundraising on Difonis’ behalf, committing to matching donations it receives to ease the cost of the prodigy’s living expenses.
Difonis is also a contestant on the popular television show "Talento Chileno." He wooed thousands with his very own composed music piece called "Flying High." (Watch Video Below)
The performance touched the judges and landed him a spot on the show.
"It was extremely nerve-wracking to perform in front of so many," he said.
Asked about possibly winning the competition, Difonis, overlooking his own perceived shortcomings, thought of others who might need it more.
“I shouldn't,” he said. “There are many more talented than I, who might need any prize money much more."
Take Action: Hear the World is an initiative sponsored by Phonak dedicated to raising awareness about the importance of hearing, educating the public about the consequences of hearing loss and informing about how people can benefit from the solutions that are available.
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