Lilly Frantzich sits at a table and speaks to her speech therapist as best she can, but for the 4-year-old it feels like play time.
“What’s next, a giraffe or a zebra?” said RiteCare clinic director Kerri Baldwin, drawing out the “z” sound and holding a plastic animal.
“Zebra!” Frantzich replied.
RiteCare of Washington offers speech and language therapy for children ages 2 to 7 at no cost to families. But as more people learn about RiteCare’s services, the number of therapists has not matched the growing number of children seeking speech therapy in the Spokane area. Currently, there’s an 18-month waiting list for children with communications disorders to be treated at RiteCare. The alternative is for families to use more expensive therapy options, which may not provide the intensive treatment needed during crucial developmental years.
“The demand is much greater than what we can do with the resources we have dedicated at this point,” said David Fagerlie, RiteCare of Washington executive director.
One in 10 kids has a communication disorder, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. RiteCare estimates roughly 1,300 kids in the Spokane area have a speech and language problem and are not receiving treatment. Fagerlie said the demand in Spokane is much greater than at RiteCare’s other clinic in Seattle.
RiteCare, located in the Holley Mason building at 157 S. Howard St., primarily is funded by the Scottish Rite Masons. The branch of freemasonry adopted communications disorders as a charitable cause in the 1950s.
Last year, the Spokane office lost a part-time therapist to private practice, leaving just two speech therapists for the seven counties RiteCare covers on this side of the state. The clinic is treating 24 children and at least 30 are on the waiting list, Communications Director Meagan Garrett said.
RiteCare has had success in fundraising in recent years; the nonprofit’s revenue in Washington jumped by $1 million in 2012 compared to 2011, according to tax records. Last year, RiteCare exceeded its annual funding expectations by 29 percent, and increases are expected to continue in future years, Fagerlie said.
“But that money won’t last forever, and we want to serve a lot more kids,” Fagerlie said. “To do that, we have to broaden the base; we have to get outside the Scottish Rite’s community to other people who care about these things.”
RiteCare is trying to grow as an organization by adding fundraising and communications staff before immediately hiring another therapist. Fagerlie said this would allow RiteCare to help more children in the future.
But right now, the more people learn about RiteCare of Spokane, the larger the waiting list grows.
“We know that one of the consequences of becoming better known is that it will increase the demand (for speech therapy),” Fagerlie said.
Because RiteCare is not tied to insurance reimbursement, therapists can spend more time treating children. What’s more, Baldwin said, insurance typically limits families to a certain number of visits at a private clinic, which might fall short of what a child needs.
“We’re able to go outside of those very narrow boundaries and see a wider variety of kids for a wider variety of reasons,” Baldwin said.
Jennifer Frantzich said she tried private clinics for both Lilly and her 6-year-old son Liam.
“It’s extremely expensive,” she said.
She noticed Lilly had a speech problem when her daughter turned 1 and still wasn’t talking. The child’s speech has improved through therapy, but it’s still not as clear as it could be. Lilly has been diagnosed with a motor speech disorder that causes her to have problems saying sounds and words.
Jennifer Frantzich said she couldn’t imagine having to wait a year and a half to get treatment for Lilly.
Garrett, RiteCare’s communications director, said it’s hard telling parents they have to wait so long.
“These parents call and we’re their last hope,” Garrett said. “They don’t have insurance or insurance has run out, they can’t afford the service and we know that we’re available to their child. And yes, your child fits our criteria, and yes, we have a phenomenal program and know that we can help them, but I’m sorry, it’s an 18-month waiting list.”
If a child can’t communicate, he or she might become frustrated and throw tantrums, which can lead to labeling as a behavioral issue rather than a communication issue, Baldwin said. In school, a communication disorder affects a child’s academics.
RiteCare’s goal is to have children with speech disorders enter the school system on a level playing field with other kids, Baldwin said.
“The impact it can have on that child for future success is critical,” Lesli Cleveland, chairwoman of the EWU Department of Communication Disorders in Spokane, said of speech therapy.
Cleveland said there are five other speech and language clinics in the city, all private. RiteCare also coordinates care with private clinics.
Said Baldwin, “We really do get phenomenal speech therapists in the area. There’s just not enough of them.”
Jennifer Frantzich has seen Liam become a better communicator through RiteCare. She hopes more children can experience improvements in their speech.
“Once they actually start communicating, it’s amazing,” Frantzich said.