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A magical place in North Carolina - CampSAY 2015

Richard Stephens | 17.10.2015

Speech and Language Therapy student Richard Stephens spent three weeks volunteering in the United States at CampSAY 2015, a camp for young people who stammer.

Taro Alexander on stage at CampSAY

For as long as I can remember, I have had a stammer. Like many children who stammer, my childhood was littered with feelings of guilt, shame, and frustration towards my speech; not being able to say what I wanted. I had a constant sense of isolation from the rest of the world as not a single person present in my life also stammered. Family, friends, teachers, they all tried their best to support me, but they could never really understand the daily battle I had with my stammer.

Shortly after my 11th birthday, my relationship with my stammer was to take an unexpected twist. I was asked by my speech therapist (SLT)  if I wanted to attend a NHS funded one-week day summer camp for children who stammer.

Feelings of nervousness and anxiety quickly vanished on day one of camp when I met the other eight children and the camp organisers, mainly SLTs and counsellors, who had provided an environment that was free from any time pressure, judgement, and interruption, enabling us all, for possibly the first time, to discuss our relationships with our stammers in a protected setting. Even though the time period was very short, I found that the camp helped to instill a new found confidence in my speech. A strong bond was created between us all, and by the end of camp, my sense of isolation had been replaced by a sense of relief at having now discovered first hand that there were many other people who shared my difficulties.

My sense of isolation had been replaced by a sense of relief at having discovered there were many other people who shared my difficulties

Unfortunately that camp remained the only one I had ever attended for young people who stammer – it was never facilitated again mainly due to cuts in funding. That was until 24 years later when I became aware of CampSAY. Having returned to university I now had extended free periods during the summer, and saw this as a chance to become involved in helping to promote the voices of young people who stammer.

SAY is the Stuttering Association for the Young, a non-profit organisation based in New York (www.say.org). It was founded in 2001 by Taro Alexander, a person who has stammered since childhood. Taro used his love of theatre and performing on stage to enable his confidence to grow, which enabled a successful career in the performing arts. SAY is Taro's dream of helping young people who stammer develop their confidence and helping them to find their voice. Every August, SAY facilitates a two-week CampSAY, in North Carolina, providing sport, music, drama, wildlife, arts and crafts, and lake activities. It is also open to young family members who do not stammer, helping to bring families closer together by fostering a greater understanding between them.

I applied to be a volunteer and was interviewed via Skype by both Taro and Meg Hart, a SAY director. They spent a lot of time during the interview really wanting to know about my experiences of stammering, especially during my time as a child at camp. I was informed in April my interview was successful and that in August I would become part of the CampSAY family for 2015.

Training

Volunteers at CAMPSayI arrived in North Carolina to a warm welcome from Taro, Meg and the rest of the CampSAY staff, a week before camp started to commence staff training. What really stood out during this period was the time given for the staff to bond. Alongside the seminars regarding rules and protocols, health and safety etc. there were numerous emotional, life-sharing and fun bonding sessions allowing staff to not only get to know each other as individuals but also create a togetherness as a 'family' that would enable the strong supportive environment for the 127 children who would be attending camp.

Bonding sessions allowed staff to create a togetherness as a 'family' that would enable the strong supportive environment for the children who would be attending

My personal highlight during training was meeting Dr. Edward G. Conture, Professor Emeritus at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, USA, and author of over 130 journal articles and books on developmental stuttering. Only the previous winter I had studied and referenced many of Dr. Conture's findings in a fluency module exam.

Also during training Michael Aldren, fresh from producing 'The King's Speech' stage tour in the UK, and Ryan Gielen, a documentary film-maker, arrived to join camp. Michael and Ryan were collaborating on a feature length documentary called 'Something to SAY' and had been following some of the campers, capturing their daily challenges with stammering, and would be capturing the children's experiences at CampSAY 2015.

I was given two main roles at camp. I was allocated as a co-bunk counsellor for the 18 year old boys, and was one of ten show directors involved in the Confident Voices Program, on which more below.. 

Start of camp

After the week's training had ended, the CampSAY team moved onto camp, situated in the Blue-Ridge Mountains and a beautiful setting. Every member of the team worked endlessly throughout the night to make sure the children's bunks felt homely and inviting.

The following day, the camp was finally to become complete. Many of the children had travelled from New York on the same flight. During breakfast at camp that morning, just as they were boarding the plane in New York, my thoughts turned to those for whom CampSAY 2015 would be their first time. I thought how wonderful and uplifting it would have been to arrive at the airport and now be boarding a flight with a hundred young people who stammered, whereas previously they may have never met another person who stammered.

At midday the staff gathered at the coach arrival meeting point. The ecstatic screams and cheers from the children inside the coaches could be heard before the coaches had even reached the meeting point, and when the coaches arrived, the cheers from both the staff and the coaches was deafening.

The entire camp met in the amphitheatre for Taro's welcoming speech, and in the evening the camp joined together during the opening campfire to welcome in the start of camp. On return to our bunk that night, the bunk had its first night time share. Every night at camp, on return to our bunk, we continued to have these sharing moments, ,which really helped to bring a togetherness to the bunk.

The following two weeks at camp was littered with many great moments. Seeing the children really throwing themselves and their voices into their daily time-tabled activities and their teams (i.e. rock-climbing, swimming, debate). This culminated in the children competing against the counsellors in two end of week team days, full of events showcasing the children's skills and giving them the opportunity to truly shine in front of the entire camp.

Storytelling project

The evening activities - beach parties, prom-like discos, movie nights, campfire shares etc - brought the entire camp together.

During one evening was the 'SAY Storytelling Project' share. Eight of the campers had written short stories about their experiences of having a stammer under the guidance of Katherine Preston, the British author of ‘Out With It'. Katherine attended the camp helping the children to launch the book ‘SAY: Storytellers’. The young authors read out extracts to the audience, and each camper and staff member received a copy of the book. During the next few days, children and staff alike could be seen capturing any free moment to delve into the stories of their fellow campers.

Campfire shares

Sitting round the campfireThe children's campfire shares displayed a maturity that was far beyond their years. The listening and attentiveness of the entire camp when a child had the floor, speaking about their journey, was what made camp so special. Each person who spoke had the silence and focus of everyone.

Feeling misunderstood and 'lost' in today’s world of high-speed communication, 'people thinking I'm stupid when I can't get my words out', being bullied and feeling 'my voice makes me feel out of control' were similar painful feelings and experiences expressed by a majority of the children.

Yet a determination, a willingness not to let other people’s negative reactions or responses to stammering dictate their lives, the positive impact that SAY had injected to help form a positive relationship with their own voice, really shone through in their ending comments: 'I would not change having my stutter as it has brought me into a new family, with amazing and supportive friends who know what I have gone through'; 'We are such a special group of people as there are only 70 million of us on this planet of billions, we are so awesome'; 'If a cure was offered to me tomorrow, I wouldn't take it. My stammer defines me; it has brought me into your lives and you into mine. Other people should just accept me for who I am like SAY has done'.

Each person who spoke had the silence and focus of everyone

End of camp performances

The penultimate day of camp was the Confident Voices Program share production. The young people had been grouped into 3s or 4s, and each group created and prepared their very own 'something' (i.e. a play, rap, song, dance etc.), to share on the last full camp day in the amphitheatre, when family and visitors would be in attendance.

Each group share was unique and incredible to watch, with each child feeling free to stammer using their own voice. After each performance you could see how much each child enjoyed performing and the confidence this instilled. One of the camper's fathers shared that his son had previously found it difficult to express himself verbally and had become less outgoing at school and at home. Yet after his first year at CampSAY his son had returned with a more positive and outgoing nature, with a growing confidence of speaking both at home and at school.

The final share of the day, performed by one of the older groups, highlighted society's obsession with labelling people (e.g. disabled, a stammerer, rich, poor, a goth etc.). Each label was written on a large box, stacked on stage. The performers spoke of how every person was unique, individual and that labels were stereotypical and only created a barrier from truly getting to know someone. At the end of the performance the performers burst through the stacked pile of boxes, symbolising breaking down barriers that restricted our interaction with others. It was a share with a deep underlying message that transcended stammering.

Final morning

Group picture of participants at CampSAY, in front of waterfallThe final morning of camp brought the curtain down on a wonderful life-enhancing two weeks for everyone involved. Waving off the coaches full of the children I had bonded closely with during the past two weeks, I found myself thinking back to the struggles I had as a child and young adult with my stammer, and feeling concerned for the children regarding the obstacles they were still to face in life.

Yet these children had something in their life that I never had.........SAY. I could see first-hand how SAY, Taro's dream, had really changed these children's lives. By bringing together children and adults who stammer, they realise they are not alone in their struggles, have an abundance of positive role models, and most importantly are shown that their voice, their stammer is beautiful and should be heard.

Travelling back to Manchester a few days later, I recalled a discussion with fellow counsellor and former camper Joe, aged 19. I had asked him during training what camp was like, and not wanting to spoil the impact of my first time at camp he simply described it as a magical place with no equal in the world. Well Joe, I couldn't agree more.

A brief trailer for 'Something to SAY' can be seen at www.michaelaldenproductions.com/WHATS_NEW.html

More pictures at http://campsay.tumblr.com