Stutter Across America

by Peter Reitzes and Elizabeth Mendez
from New York, USA

Stutter Across America, an outreach project of FRIENDS: The Association of Young People Who Stutter, toured the United States during July of 2002, providing support to children, teens, and adults who stutter and their families. A mobile stuttering awareness tour and mobile support group, Stutter Across America facilitated workshops in New York City; Philadelphia; Cleveland, Ohio; St. Louis, Missouri; Eau Claire, Wisconsin; Omaha, Nebraska; Hays, Kansas; and Denver, Colorado, where we ended our tour at the 5th annual FRIENDS convention. At each stop we carried the message that stuttering is allowed.

As we reported in Advance Magazine for Speech Language Pathologists, "the need for Stutter Across America arose when FRIENDS recognized that, amongst stutterers and their families, stuttering is the absolute worst thing in this world . . .if we do not talk about it." From the smiles, tears, and cheers we received across the United States, it is clear to us that Stutter Across America and FRIENDS succeeded in showing workshop and discussion participants that once you talk about it, stuttering just isn't that bad.

In Philadelphia, Joe Donaher, Coordinator of the stuttering program at the Center for Childhood Communication, at the Children's Hospital, organized a workshop that included approximately thirty teens and adults who stutter and their families, as well as speech pathologists and graduate students. While the teens and adults answered questions from parents of children who stutter in a round table discussion, several children who stutter spent the afternoon playing games and engaging in stuttering-oriented activities. The children expressed their experiences as stutterers through such vehicles as poetry, stories, and drawings. The grand finale of the afternoon came when the children acted out a play about stuttering-related teasing in front of the entire group. A particularly moving experience occurred when one especially reluctant child found the courage to participate as a result of the friendship and support provided by the other children.

By the end of this Stutter Across America workshop, the children and their parents were exchanging phone numbers and arranging sleepovers and outings. One of the mothers told Lee Caggiano, co-director of FRIENDS, "We had no idea that we would receive so much from this workshop -- thank you." None of the children in attendance had ever met another stutterer until Stutter Across America came to their town. One parent said to Donaher that "It was very beneficial for us as parents of a child who stutters to hear that other parents have similar concerns and worries. It was also great to hear from adults who stutter and [our son] loved meeting other kids who were just like him."

In Hays, Kansas, Stutter Across America facilitated a workshop organized by Dr. Marcia Bannister, Chair of the Department of Communication Disorders at Fort Hays University. Dr. Bannister brought together approximately forty speech-language pathologists and graduate students, six local stutterers, reporters, and area residents; several participants made the three-hour drive from Wichita to attend. The workshop consisted of a support group meeting followed by a panel presentation and discussion, in which the stutterers shared their histories and insights about stuttering and answered questions from the audience. Another discussion focused on activities designed to increase children's awareness of stuttering. The youngest panel member, a nine-year-old girl, had never met another stutterer until that day. After meeting the other stutterers in attendance and participating in the support group, she gained the confidence to join our panel, share some of her stuttering experiences, and answer questions. After the workshop, her mother wrote to thank us, noting that before the workshop, "No one had ever told us that it is ok to stutter.""Meeting you and sitting in front and talking about stuttering is all [my daughter] talks about now," she reports. "She is so much more confident about herself and I am so thankful to you for that." This mother recently wrote FRIENDS with the news that she is currently endeavoring to start a support group in Hays for stutterers like her daughter.

Other workshop highlights in Hays included the panel participation of a man in his thirties who stutters and had previously never met another stutterer. One college student who stutters began the evening declaring his intention to sit in the audience and refrain from participating. Before the evening was over, he had joined the panel discussion and taken questions from the audience.

In Omaha, Joan Cahalan and Dr. Charles Healey put together a workshop that included approximately thirty teen and adult stutterers, parents, spouses, and speech-language pathologists. A round table discussion included topics such as personal approaches towards stuttering management, the possibility of a stuttering cure, and the positive and negative aspects of advertising (i.e., being open about) stuttering. A lively discussion ensued when participants were challenged to relate positive aspects of being a stutterer or the parent of a stutterer. While one participant insisted he could find nothing positive to say about being a stutterer, another observed that being teased about stuttering had taught him how callous it would be for him to tease others about problems such as obesity. Another participant shared his conviction that stuttering had to be good because it brought so many good people together.

Stutter Across America arrived at the 5th annual FRIENDS convention in Denver and was greeted with high-fives, hugs, cheers, and smiles from many of the over 250 participants, including over one hundred children and teens who stutter and their families, adult stutterers, speech-language pathologists, graduate students, and volunteers. When Patty Walton, the FRIENDS convention organizer, was asked which workshops at the convention went well, a teenager who stutters enthusiastically interjected, "They all went well!"

We cordially invite you to come and join the 6th annual FRIENDS convention in New York. Please call Lee Caggiano at (866) 866-8335 for more information.

August 27, 2002