UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA FOUNDATION

Camp for kids who stutter

Each summer, children who stutter come to the U to become more confident in their communication skills

Imagine ordering food you don’t actually want because the name of the item you do want causes you to stutter. Or spending three days with your stomach tied in nervous knots because you’re dreading an upcoming phone call with someone you’ve never met—someone who may react to your stuttering with surprise or laughter. 

For the 3 million people in the United States who stutter, fear and anxiety can accompany even the simplest social interaction. “People who stutter get a lot of negative feedback from their environment,” says Linda Hinder­scheit, clinical supervisor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences. “They learn very quickly as children that stuttering is not good, so they try not to stutter, which might involve switching words if they know they’re going to stutter on a certain word. Or they might stop talking or responding in class. They might even purposely give the wrong answer because they don’t want to stutter.”

Children, seated, looking at the claw of a raptor
Children who attend the U of M Kids Who Stutter camp go on field trips to various parts of campus, such as The Raptor Center. (Photo by Everett Ayoubzadeh)

Speech therapy can help kids learn techniques to manage their stuttering, but there’s no known way to eliminate it completely. That’s why Hinderscheit feels it’s important to teach kids how to manage the emotions associated with stuttering—and why she calls the University of Minnesota Kids Who Stutter camp (UMKWS) “the best thing I’ve ever done professionally.”

Learning confidence

The camp started back in 2009, when alumnus Leo Sioris and his wife, Cheryl, approached the department with a desire to give back. Sioris, CEO and cofounder of SafetyCall International and a professor in the U’s College of Pharmacy, had never forgotten how a University of Minnesota speech-language pathologist helped him in his own struggles with stuttering as both a child and a college student. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t have that help back then,” he says.

Sioris, who received his undergraduate and doctorate degrees at the College of Pharmacy, remembers his college self as an “outstanding avoider” who would change the course of a sentence midstream when he realized he was approaching a word on which he knew he’d stutter. “Every class I’d walk into, I’d have that fear every day: are they going to call on me?” he says. “That fear is just terrible. It’s wrenching.”

Thanks to generous gifts from the Siorises, a new generation—almost 100 kids since 2009—is learning how to decrease that anxiety. The weeklong UMKWS camp, which takes place in mid-June, has a morning session for children in third to fifth grade and an after­noon session for sixth- through eighth-graders.

Since the camp began, 34 University of Minnesota graduate students studying speech-language pathology have participated in the camp as part of a practicum, a hands-on learning opportunity required as part of the master’s program. The Siorises’ gift also supports two former U of M grad students, both people who stutter, who lead camp activities—and serve as role models, says Hinderscheit, the camp’s director. “Some kids still believe their stuttering can be cured,” she says. “To see that there are successful adults who have done great things and still stutter is really important.”

One of those former graduate students is Joel Korte, owner of guitar pedal manufacturer Chase Bliss Audio. He’s been part of the UMKWS camp since its first year, when it counted as part of his practicum.

Korte, who completed his master’s degree in 2013, says kids get plenty of speech therapy—which focuses on practical techniques for stuttering less often or less severely—in school. What the camp provides is a closer look at the emotions and attitudes associated with stuttering. “We’ll talk about how to respond to bullying, or how what’s really important when you’re speaking is the quality of the communication, not whether you’re stuttering or not,” he says.

Each day, after a group activity focusing on stuttering, the kids go on fun campus field trips, such as a tour of Gopher athletics facilities or a bus ride to The Raptor Center. The purpose of the outings, says Korte, is to help kids build confidence in natural ways, like asking the tour guides questions and interacting with each other. At the end of the week, the group goes to Mc­Donald’s, where kids order their own food—something many of them have never done before.

No longer alone

William Hoff, an Edina High School senior who attended the camp in its inaugural year, says it was the first time he’d spent time with other kids who stutter. “It was a comfortable environment that helped you be OK with stuttering,” he says. “It’s nice to know other kids have the same experiences you do.”

Hoff, a football player and rugby captain, has also participated in two offshoots of the UMKWS camp: the Teens Who Stutter support group and now—because he’s heading to college this fall—the College Students Who Stutter group. Both groups provide continuing support to kids who are too old to attend the camp, and both are funded by the Siorises.

“If you’re feeling anxious or worried because you don’t have that many people in your life who stutter, talking about it is the best thing,” Hoff says. The insights he gained in camp and in the support groups have given him the confidence to be more open about his stuttering; since middle school, he’s emailed teachers before a new semester begins to let them know he stutters and share ideas on how they can help him succeed.

Sioris, who never talked to his teachers or college professors about his stuttering—in fact, he tried to hide it from them—says he wishes he’d had a simi­lar program when he was Hoff’s age. He’s visited the camp several times and came away impressed with how much the staff accomplishes in just one week. “These kids are talking to each other and relating and feeling good about themselves because they’re not all alone,” he says.

Hinderscheit plans to continue expanding the teen and college groups and would like to start a support group for parents of kids who stutter. Her dream, she says, is for stuttering to be better understood and accepted—a dream that’s already be coming true for the grateful kids and families whose lives have been touched by the camp she helped found.

Amy Sitze is editor of Legacy magazine