Superhero to the rescue of kids who stutter

A camp that teaches children who stutter to embrace their voices gets a boost from a fellow proud stutterer's charity bike rides

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 October, 2015, 3:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 October, 2015, 3:01am

Corey Caporale, 37, spent most of his life hating and hiding his voice. He stutters when he talks, and no amount of well-meaning parental and therapeutic intervention changed that.

"I viewed it as something about myself that I needed to fight and overcome," he says.

But he couldn't.

In 2011, Caporale saw a segment on television about Our Time Theatre, an organisation that taught children who stutter to embrace their voices just the way they are.

He was so intrigued he travelled to New York to attend the group's annual gala, which honoured David Seidler, the screenwriter for the Oscar-winning The King's Speech, whose own stutter shaped his life and work. Also appearing onstage? Dozens of children who stuttered.

"These kids just blow you away," Caporale says. "For me, growing up with no confidence in my voice, to see these kids up in front of a group of hundreds of people - acting, singing, totally confident in themselves - I was hooked."

The group, which has since changed its name to Say: The Stuttering Association for the Young, hosts a sleep-away camp every summer in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Caporale decided to raise money for the camp by riding his bike from his home in Chicago to the camp, 1,159km away.

"I felt like it was a way to show these kids if you put your mind and heart into something, the sky's the limit," he says."I want them to know they don't have to put a ceiling on themselves."

He's made the ride for the past three summers - with a group the first time, alone the second two. He rides 96.6km a day for 12 days straight, bunking down in motels along the way.

Taro Alexander, Say's founder and president, says Caporale is "legendary" at camp.

"The kids line up on two sides chanting, 'Go, Corey, go! Go, Corey, go!'" Alexander says. "He rides in like a superhero, and he tells them his story and why he's there and what he just went through."

Alexander remembers Caporale approaching him shortly after that 2011 gala and floating the bike ride by him.

"I was like, 'You want to do what?'" Alexander says. "He told me, 'I want these kids to know that somebody out there supports them and cares about them so much that they'd ride [more than 1,000km] for them.'"

Caporale's ride, through online fundraising, raises money for the camp's scholarship programme.

Camp Say is a two-week programme for children aged eight to 18. This past summer 124 campers rode horses and swam, played sports and made art - all sorts of traditional camp things. Many told Alexander they never wanted to leave.

"Sometimes it happens as fast as sitting on the bus from the airport to camp and hearing each other stutter, and, boom, these kids are friends for life," Alexander says.

"Seeing a child go from very afraid to even open their mouth and by the end of camp saying how proud they are of their voice and their friends, it's real, life-transformational stuff happening."

Stuttering affects about 1 per cent of the global population and 5 per cent of all children, according to Say. Boys are more than twice as likely to stutter as girls, and no single cause has been confirmed, though researchers have indicated that genetics can contribute. Despite conventional wisdom, Say maintains, stuttering is generally not caused by psychological or physical trauma.

It remains a bit of a mystery. Say's approach, which measures success not in stutter-free fluency but in a child's willingness and confidence to speak up despite a stutter, has gained traction in recent years.

"Our mission is to let people who stutter know they can do anything they want in life and to not let stuttering hold them back. We're here to improve confidence and communication skills, and help them create friendships and educate them about what stuttering is and is not, as well as support their parents, teachers and speech pathologists," says Alexander.

Medical experts don't all agree. "The field is not united on this," Alexander says. "There are many, many speech pathologists and organisations that are dedicated to helping people who stutter who are 100 per cent in line with the thinking that fluency is not the goal," he says. "But a lot of speech pathologists think fluency is the be-all and end-all, and if you can get the child fluent, they won't have the feelings of shame and isolation."

Say works with children to set and meet specific goals.

I felt like it was a way to show these kids if you put your mind and heart into something, the sky's the limit
Corey Caporale

"Maybe somebody is really afraid to talk on the phone," he says. "They're afraid of getting laughed at or hung up on. So we'll work towards calling a pizza place to ask how long they're open."

Often, he says, the kindness of strangers astounds them. Other times it does not. And Say gives children the tools for both outcomes.

"I have three children," Alexander says. "I understand; if there are any challenges, your first instinct is to want to make it better. Talking is such a core part of who we are, and it's devastating to see a child not be able to get words out."

Sometimes simply finding a community can be therapeutic.

"Both for the child and the parent, being around kids who talk the same way can help you see, 'I don't need to hate the way I speak,'" he says. "We want people to have self-acceptance and know what they have to say matters. Even if it takes you a little longer to say it."

Caporale was inspired by the gala to begin his own journey towards self-acceptance.

"I looked up the word 'stutter' in the dictionary," he tells me. "So there it is. And right near it is 'style'.

"So stuttering is a stylish way of speaking," he says. "I would hope that's the way it's viewed, as a part of who you are rather than something in a list of medical terms. A dysfunction."

He views his stutter as a gift.

"When I was younger, I hated the fact that I always felt vulnerable because of my speech," he says. "As I grew up, I sort of learned that vulnerability puts people at ease. It lends a certain comfort level to the conversation.

"It's almost been a filter to find people with hearts of gold. Shallow people don't get it, so they sort of filter away."

In a 2014 blog post, Caporale wrote about accepting his stutter as an ally. "My stutter is honest, brutally honest," he wrote. "Every day it reminds me I am imperfect."

But to hundreds of youngsters, he's a superhero.

Chicago Tribune