The toughest years of my life were my school years. Totally ignored by schoolmates, neglected by teachers and being incomplete in my parents' eyes, I wondered why I was on this earth. Nobody listened, nobody cared. Nobody loved me. Today I know otherwise. Now, along with our self-help organization, I'm working hard to make sure that other adolescents who stutter don't have to go through what I had to go through, or if they do have to, that they know where to find support sooner than I did.
Within the Swedish National Stuttering Association (SSR) I am one of the leaders of a children's camp. During three days the leaders play with the kids, and the parents are well taken care of by SLPšs. The parents get to talk together about their children, listen to the therapists, see videos and ask their thousands of questions. We play games, we swim, we have lots of outdoor activities, we have a disco, the leaders do a play back act, but most of all, we show the kids we're stuttering adults who have a life worth living.
One thing that always brings tears in my eyes is when we introduce ourselves to the group and one of the children says "Mummy, that lady stutters too!." Every year there are children who didn't want to come. And the same children ask when they leave, if they can come back next week. They sit with their parents when they come and they sit together with the other kids when they leave.
In the evenings, after bringing the whole group back together, we play outdoor games, have a barbeque, sing and dance, the kids play together and the parents start to talk. The children mostly don't care about their parents anymore. They have made new friends. But the parents have heard some serious things during the day that worries them. They ask us, stuttering adults, how life is. How therapy is. How important it is for them to see us stuttering and having a good life! But some cry. They realize their child might become one of us: a stuttering adult, with little hope for fluency.....
Three European Youth Camps have also been organized by ELSA, the European League of Stuttering Associations -- one in conjunction to the World Congress in Sweden in 1995, one in the Netherlands in 1997 and another one in Sweden in 2000. Two young people, one male, one female, from every European country that is a member of ELSA are invited to join us for one week to work, talk, learn, but most of all, have fun. The participants are between the ages of 18-27. We choose a spot where there's space to get to know each other, nature to find peace and a place for ourselves, without other guests around.
We have so called "working" workshops, for example how to start our own stuttering association, we have expression workshops, such as theatre, mime, and painting, but also lots of spare time for sports, getting to know each other and learning more about the countries we come from and of course, for having fun. Needless to say we don't sleep during this camp....
It was so wonderful to see this young man, shy, and in his eyes, worthless and ugly, change into a confident scene artist who started his own self-help group in his home country. Another one changed his job as he now feels confident enough to take the job he always wanted. The third one moved to another country to start a new career. The next one is on the national board! We laugh, we cry and we are one big happy family. We, as leaders, don't just loose sleep, we also loose twenty years as we dance to music we never heard of, tell jokes, and sing play back and karaoke. And again we gain some years when we give them a mirror and show them their fantastic selves.
We have an exercise where they make a paper bird, write down something they want to put behind and than put the bird on fire. The silence afterwards is so intense. We also ask them to give someone else a small gift, bought, made, written, whatever, as long as it's personal. During the last evening they all get a large sheet of paper to put somewhere in the party room. During the evening everyone can write or draw something down about that person. It can be just anything. For example on mine someone wrote: "You're wonderful. Sorry about the trousers though." (I still wonder what is wrong with them.)
Some of these young people were especially gifted and showed that to us. We"ve had a guy spitting fire, table tennis pros, salsa stars, painters and poets, piano players and so on.
We also have youth camps in Sweden. This year 47 youngsters attended the camp, leaders included, which is a record! The camp starts with activities for the leaders only, to get to know each other better and get prepared for the different activities. There were workshops (for example musical exercises, speaking in front of the group, theatre and other workshops on how to deal with stuttering), sports (rounders, boxing, dancing), games (charades, play tag and other funny games) and time to relax. And as Sweden has had the warmest summer in 150 years, the water was always tempting. New for this year was a "godmother/father" for all new participants, which means someone who had been to the camp before, to guide, talk to and help the new ones.
Probably the most important lesson I've learned, and one that our summer camps help children and adolescents learn sooner than I did, is that we're all right. What we have gone through has made us stronger and wiser. And we can and should use that to help others. Young people are our future so we better give them a good example, as they will be teaching our children and grandchildren.