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This summer camp aims to be a space for kids with stutters to be themselves


It's officially summer camp season, and we're about to take you to a very specific camp for a group of kids who don't always feel heard by their peers. Alexis Marshall from member station WPLN reports from Nashville.

ALEXIS MARSHALL, BYLINE: Every morning at Camp T.A.L.K.S. sounds a little different. On this morning, there are shockingly realistic car impressions.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Imitating car engine zooming).

MARSHALL: And some talking up of good grades.

TUCKER: (Stuttering) I get As or A+s in almost every subject.

MARSHALL: As you can hear, 9-year-old Tucker stutters. And what makes this camp different is that all the other campers do, too.

RYAN MILLAGER: Our goal is not to try and teach kids how to speak fluently or how to get rid of the stutter.

MARSHALL: That's camp director Ryan Millager. Full disclosure - he's also married to a WPLN staffer, but she did not work on this story.

MILLAGER: Our goal is really just to make a safe space where they can be themselves and deal with the emotions and some of the complicated internal pieces of stuttering.

MARSHALL: About 1% of the population stutters, typically more boys than girls. This five-day camp run by Vanderbilt University in Nashville brings together kids from around the region. We're only using campers' first names because kids who stutter often get bullied. That's something 11-year-old camper Aubrey has had to deal with, but not here.

AUBREY: Instead of people interrupting me, they, like, wait for me and, like, (stuttering) listen better and don't make fun of me.

MARSHALL: The number one rule at Camp T.A.L.K.S. is everyone has as much time as they need to speak. Here's 11-year-old Kiera.

KIERA: It means a good amount to me because I - it actually lets me actually talk.

MARSHALL: For 14-year-old Alexa, the camp has been transformational.

ALEXA: I don't really like (stuttering) talking to new people a lot. And (stuttering) I mean, I'm just a little shy.

MARSHALL: So you feel like you've opened up a little bit?

ALEXA: Yeah - came out of my shell more.

MARSHALL: On the day I visited, campers got a chance to directly address their stutters.

MILLAGER: You can write a letter to your stutter.

MARSHALL: Camp director, Ryan Millager, put on calming music as the campers got quiet and began writing. Some of the campers chose to share those letters with you. We're going to listen now to what Tucker, Journey, Toha, Kiera and Alexa all had to say in their own words and on their own time.

TUCKER: Dear stutter...

JOURNEY: Dear stutter...

TOHA: Hi, stuttering. (Stuttering) How are you?

KIERA: It is hard to deal with you, stuttering.

TUCKER: I don't know how I feel about you. I feel (stuttering) like you're a (stuttering) problem sometimes.

TOHA: Sometimes you get in the way of things (stuttering) like talking to other people, speeches and a lot of other things.

KIERA: Because the voice will get stuck in my throat, voice box or mouth.

ALEXA: I'm not feeling good about having (stuttering) repetition.

KIERA: I hate you, stuttering.

JOURNEY: I used to hate you and how much you consumed my thoughts.

TOHA: But I don't - I don't want to lose you, though.

TUCKER: Sometimes I feel (stuttering) like you're good since it makes me kind of unique.

TOHA: Stuttering is a way to challenge myself (stuttering) to do more and talk more.

JOURNEY: You are not a burden, but a blessing.

TUCKER: You never (stuttering) held me back. And (stuttering) you've also let me meet amazing people - from, Tucker.

MARSHALL: I asked the campers what part of Camp T.A.L.K.S. would stay with them into the school year. There was a common theme in their answers - the confidence to be themselves, take their time and to teach other people about stuttering.

For NPR News, I'm Alexis Marshall in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PUTH SONG, "LEFT AND RIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Alexis Marshall
Alexis Marshall is the 2018 fall reporting intern at Nashville Public Radio. She is a senior at Middle Tennessee State University.