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For two weeks a year, children with rare speech disorder learn to overcome and be heard

Blake Barnett exuberantly asks for and arts and craft “eye” piece so he can complete a man-on-the-moon face art project, June 26, 2019, during his stay at Camp Candoo WSU Department of Speech and Hearing Clinic. WSU graduate student Jennifer Westby-Klassen works with Blake. The children were encouraged to ask for every item while building the projects. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Blake Barnett exuberantly asks for and arts and craft “eye” piece so he can complete a man-on-the-moon face art project, June 26, 2019, during his stay at Camp Candoo WSU Department of Speech and Hearing Clinic. WSU graduate student Jennifer Westby-Klassen works with Blake. The children were encouraged to ask for every item while building the projects. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
By Arielle Dreher The Spokesman-Review

Four boys sit around the table, each with their assigned student clinician, decorating their cardboard rockets with tissue paper. This is not an ordinary craft time or summer camp, however. Each child is constantly asked questions by their clinician: “Who can we ask for the glue?” and “How many pieces of paper would you like?”

The boys practice addressing their questions to specific people around the craft table, repeating phrases and, at times, imitating their clinician’s exact intonation or facial movements to get a word correct.

Across the classroom, behind a one-way mirror, parents sit in the dark and look on.

For two weeks each summer, part of the Washington State University Health Sciences building turns into a colorful and animated Camp Candoo, an intensive treatment program for children with speech disorders, specifically kids with childhood apraxia of speech. The affliction is a speech disorder that impacts kids who know the words or exactly what they want to say but struggle to create the movements necessary to make the sounds or form the words.

Student clinicians, in master’s programs at WSU and Eastern Washington University, work one-on-one with kids as well as come together for group sessions, where children who struggle to speak clearly can interact with one another and their speech pathologists in training. There are two sessions, with different kids and clinicians, in the morning and afternoon.

Amy Meredith and Nancy Potter, both professors in the WSU Speech and Hearing Department and certified speech-language pathologists, supervise their students and run the program.

This year, 15 students ages 5 to 10 attended from around the country. Families came from as far away as northern Canada and Florida. Because childhood apraxia of speech is rare, few speech pathologists know how to treat it. But Meredith and Potter have more than 50 years of combined experience treating the disorder, perhaps explaining the large draw of their program, which started in 2013.

Families apply in January to get into the program and come to Spokane for two weeks in June. Some families have come back repeatedly because of the progress they see in their children at camp.

While it’s called a camp, Meredith said the program is actually quite difficult for the kids, as crafts and activities are really designed to get them to constantly practice forming their words and sounds. At the beginning of camp, each child is assessed before guardians pick phrases they would like their children to learn during the camp.

“They’ll see more gains in these two weeks than they’ll see in months of speech therapy at home, and I think that’s all because of the intensity. We’re relentless. We work them hard,” Meredith said.

Shawny Fraser and her son, Corbin, drove more than 900 miles from their small town in Canada to attend the camp, but Fraser said the long haul is worth it. This is Corbin’s third year at the camp.

“Come Christmastime, he’s dying to come back to camp,” Fraser said of her son. “He loves it; he talks about it.”

Fraser already has seen improvement this year. When she and Corbin went out to eat the other night, he got to order “a root beer, please.” Fraser said that was the first time he had ordered his favorite drink – and was understood by the waiter.

Parents appreciate being able to see the therapy in action and enjoy interacting with the student-clinicians, who are working for the required clinical hours they need before graduating.

“The level of speech therapy that we’ve seen is just excellent,” Fraser said. “Our speech therapist at home is aware of (apraxia), and has her own treatment for it, but I bet these student clinicians have more hands-on experience than she ever will have.”

Liz Barteld drove to Camp Candoo from Hood River, Oregon, in the family’s camper. Her son, Rocco, turned 10 years old this week.

“He wanted to call people – all of his relatives on the phone – and talk to them, and he never wants to talk to people on the phone,” Barteld said.

When Meredith and Potter started Camp Candoo in 2013, they were the second camp nationwide to treat apraxia that Meredith was aware of at the time. Now, there are more camps around the country, but not enough. Meredith said she is willing to share curriculum and resources with other speech pathologists interested in the program.

“We welcome speech language pathologists from all over to come see our camp, because if they want to start their own, we’re like go for it,” Meredith said. “There’s plenty of kids who need it, and we’re not at all possessive about the concept. If you want to start a camp where you are, here’s our curriculum, borrow and build. Go for it.”

The camp costs $950 for the two-week session, and some insurance companies will cover the costs. Meredith said families have applied for grants in the past, but she is also looking for sponsors for the program to help offset costs in coming years. Current program fees are solely to cover the expenses. She capped the program at 15 kids to ensure that she and Potter can supervise and maintain the 1-to-1 ratio for clinicians and kids. During the school year, Meredith runs a twice-a-week after-school program for students with apraxia.

Beyond the classroom with a one-way mirror, a door opens to a playground, concealed to those on the outside by tall walls – a perfect space for the kids to blow off some steam after a hard day’s work. “I THINK I CAN” is painted repeatedly on the playground wall above a train. During an afternoon session, the kids chase each other around or ride bikes on a small slab of concrete.

During snack time, the group gets a chance to practice a lot of sounds they have worked on during the week as they sing “Happy Birthday” to Rocco on his special day. This year is Rocco’s first year at camp, and Barteld said she loves being able to watch the therapy in order to understand how to help Rocco when they are at home. Normally, his speech pathology sessions are behind closed doors, she said.

“He’s been in speech and early intervention since he was 2. … It’s been really powerful, just hearing Rocco say all of his phrases on the way home so clearly,” Barteld said.

Camp Candoo includes sessions for parents to ask questions of guest speakers and learn how to best advocate for their child as well as to understand the complexities of speech disorders. The program creates a community for parents and children to share experiences.

“He gets to know here that he’s not the only one, because he’s from a very small community and he doesn’t have a lot of other apraxic kids to be around,” Fraser said of her son Corbin. “… He feels comfortable here.”

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