Sound Start Babies Early Intervention Program

What if every baby with hearing loss had the opportunity to achieve her full potential and learn as if she did not have a disability?

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Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

In 1969, the co-founders of the Sound Start Babies Early Intervention Program realized that there was an unmet need for a day program to address deafness in children born to mothers who had been exposed to rubella during pregnancy. Prior to this time, the only option for families was to place their babies in a residential facility for the deaf. As heads of the audiology and speech pathology departments at a community hospital, the co-founders knew the importance of family involvement and a home environment for these babies. There is a brief window of opportunity from birth to age 3, when hearing impaired children, with appropriate early intervention, can learn to listen, speak, and communicate. Science and our own results demonstrate that if this critical window is missed, irreversible deficits accrue. The Sound Start Babies Early Intervention Program uses a multidisciplinary approach with a team of specialists including speech language pathologists, an audiologist, teachers of the deaf, occupational therapists, social worker, and psychologist to address the needs of hearing impaired babies in the program. Many have multiple associated disabilities including craniofacial anomalies, vision problems, feeding disorders, and fine and gross motor disabilities. Our professionals work with babies and families to facilitate intensive language exposure in the home and at the full day, inclusive Ivy Nursery where hearing impaired children learn alongside their normally hearing peers.

Which categories describe you? (the answer will not be public)

  • White (for example: German, Irish, English, Italian, Polish, French, Caucasian)

If you chose to self-identify your race, ethnicity, or origin, please share here: (the answer will not be public)

American, caucasian


Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • New Jersey

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]

Mountain Lakes, New Jersey

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [State]

  • New Jersey

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]

Eleven counties in northern New Jersey, including the following cities: Paterson, Passaic, Jersey City, Sparta, Wayne, Clifton, Madison, East Orange, Bayonne, Union City, Newton, Hackettstown, Philipsburg, Parsippany, Washington, Morristown

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

A common birth defect, nearly 3 in 1,000 babies are born in the United States each year with hearing loss. Although the causes may differ from the early experience of our co-founders, mandatory screening of newborns has helped identify more hearing impaired babies earlier. In addition, improved neonatal care has increased the number of babies that survive who have risk factors for hearing loss. In New Jersey, there are approximately 165-175 babies identified with hearing loss annually. By providing early intervention services from birth to age 3, these babies are set on course to learn and achieve in the same way their hearing peers do, and many are mainstreamed by first grade. The intent is to take advantage of this critical period of brain development during the optimal time for speech and language gains. If this window is missed, there are irreversible delays in speech and learning.

The Sound Start Babies Early Intervention Program has provided innovative life-changing services to over 1,000 hearing impaired babies and their families since its inception in 1969. Sound Start provides access to quality, intensive listening and spoken language, total communication (sign and spoken language combined), and educational services to babies with hearing loss from eleven counties in northern New Jersey. More than 50% of participants are from low income families, 59% from multilingual homes, and 50% have multiple associated disabilities, i.e. various syndromes including craniofacial anomalies, vision problems, feeding disorders, and fine and gross motor disabilities. With appropriate early intervention during the most critical period for language development, from birth to age 3, these babies can develop language skills commensurate with their hearing peers. Our graduates have become mainstreamed in the classroom, resulting in savings to school districts and communities. Sound Start opens a world of opportunities for these children. There are many success stories of graduates who are leading full and productive lives as workers and professionals in various fields and disciplines. One example is a young woman who is currently a doctoral candidate and teaching English classes at a college in North Carolina. Another graduate is a Julliard trained cellist. Providing unique listening and speaking opportunities improves measurable outcomes and affords the intangibles of hope and confidence for hearing impaired babies and their families.

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • Communities of color
  • Children who are differently abled
  • Low-income communities

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Childcare
  • Child and Family Services
  • Education

Year Founded


Project Stage

  • Established (the solution has passed the previous stages, and has demonstrated success)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

A newborn is identified through mandatory hearing screening prior to leaving the hospital. The parents of the child are referred to professionals in the Sound Start Babies Program. In the early weeks and months, our professionals, including a speech language pathologist, audiologist, and teacher of the deaf visit the family in the home. Initial services focus on parent education, helping them to understand, and give them hope for the future. At 12 months, parents and babies may participate in weekly classes with other families in similar circumstances. The Ivy Nursery, a full day, inclusive nursery program is open to babies between 18 and 36 months. Children learn alongside normally hearing toddlers. Many become mainstreamed by first grade.

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

The Sound Start Babies Early Intervention Program provides coordinated and comprehensive care as compared with other programs that offer fragmented services. Each year, we serve between 50 and 60 babies and their families. Recent nursery outcomes demonstrate that 100% of participants made gains in increasing understanding and use of language. At age 3, graduating students, inclusive of those with multiple disabilities, demonstrate impressive gains or attain skills appropriate to their chronological age. The recent implementation of a pilot tele-intervention program will enhance services and expand our reach. We are planning for an additional classroom in the Ivy Nursery which will open the door for babies on our waiting list. We hope to expand services to parts of the state which are currently underserved.

Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Annual Budget

  • $500k - $1m

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

In 1997, The Lake Drive Foundation for Children Who Are Deaf and Hard of Hearing, a 501c3 corporation was established for the sole benefit of the Sound Start Program. Although a State Department of Health approved program, reimbursement covers only 1/3 of the cost of providing comprehensive services. This year,the Foundation has budgeted $287,500 to cover the shortfall.Funds are raised through our annual dinner benefit, annual appeal, and grants.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

The Sound Start Program is unique as it provides coordinated and comprehensive care as compared with others that offer fragmented services. It is the only Program in New Jersey that utilizes LENA technology which is an objective measurement tool that empowers families and helps evaluate levels and amounts of noise in the home, encouraging direct conversation. Our professionals have been involved in outreach and training for service coordinators to facilitate timely referral. They have been invited to present their results at state, national, and international professional conventions.

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

It is clear from our experience that it is important to care for the whole child and not just the disability. By involving the entire family through education and cooperation, children will thrive. While the innovations and use of technology has helped transform the lives of the babies and families in our program and serve a very important purpose, the collaboration between social workers, psychologists, teachers, audiologists, therapists, and family members has been the key to success. This team approach may be duplicated in other settings to advance the wellbeing of children.

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)

  • Email

Referral: If you discovered the Challenge thanks to an organization or person other than Ashoka, who was it? (the answer will not be public)

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation email

Program Design Clarity

Staff members provide in-home services to babies with hearing loss and their families from 11 counties in northern New Jersey. The tele-intervention program allows continuity of care when families are traveling and affords opportunities for extended family members to participate in the baby's education. Families who have limited or no access to care may now receive it. At the full day Ivy Nursery, the same team from a variety of disciplines provides specialized services to hearing impaired babies as a superior option in place of traditional daycare. Cases are reviewed among the team weekly.

Community Leadership

As regular participants in the NJ Early Intervention (EI) System at local and regional levels, our professionals work to educate the EI System on the needs of this special population. A Teacher of the Deaf and a program co-founder are State Champions for the Cochlear Alliance, whose purpose is to ensure health insurance coverage for cochlear implants and follow-up therapy. We urge legislators to renew legislation for early ID of hearing loss.

Age of Children Impacted

  • 0-1.5
  • 1.5 -3

Spread Strategies

It is clear that the services provided by the Sound Start Program could benefit hearing impaired children everywhere. Unfortunately, there are still many underserved or unserved communities in the southern counties of the state and elsewhere. We continue to work with the state EI System, and legislators to increase awareness and reach these communities. We are hopeful that the success of our tele-intervention program has far-reaching effects.

Reflect on how your work helps children to thrive. How are you cultivating children’s sense of self, belonging, and purpose through your model?

By developing communication skills, hearing impaired children are given the ability to achieve their full potential. Our students learn to cope with their disability through support, therapy, and education. They have hope for the future as their families see the possibilities instead of the limitations for a child with hearing loss. And, they thrive as they are able to communicate and function in the same manner as their normal hearing peers.

Leadership Story

Mandatory newborn hearing screening and advances in technology have brought awareness to the urgency for services for hearing impaired babies as early as possible. Seeing what can be achieved with early intervention at a critical time for brain and language development has been a motivating force. I founded the educational program for babies with hearing loss and their families and began a foundation when public funding for this care was inadequate until after age 3 when it's too late for brain development. My journey continues as I learn from the babies, their families, and my colleagues.

What awards or honors has the project received? (Optional)

Sound Start's Ivy Nursery--selected as the NJ Speech-Hearing-Language Association Program of the Year twice.Founder,Dr.Laura McKirdy has received several honors including the Seeds of Hope and NJ Health Business Awards. Sound Start teacher has presented results at national/international conferences.

Organization's Twitter Handle


Organization’s Facebook Page (URL)

Leader's LinkedIn Profile (URL)

Attachments (1)

SSB Stories.pdf

Some of our Sound Start Program babies.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Fred

Wonderfu;l program reaching a population with often limited resources. So curious to find out how you identify funding and resources for low income families especially if they don;t have insurance, speak a different language (staffing), or are undocumented?  The comprehensiveness of the services and the community support reflected are admirable. Thank You.

Photo of Ann

Thank you for your comments. The Sound Start Babies Early Intervention Program is open to all babies, regardless of a family's ability to pay.  State reimbursement for services covers only one third of the cost of providing services. The Lake Drive Foundation/Sound Start Babies Foundation works to raise the necessary funds to meet the shortfall through various fund raising events, grants, and individual donors. We provide bilingual/bicultural education as well as sign language in the homes and in the classroom.