by Julia Hollister
The Aurora shooting atrocity will forever differentiate this year’s FRIENDS convention from previous meetings. Twelve of our attendees had been in the theater that night, and as a group we grieved and supported each other. As horrible and senseless as the act was, it did not manage to define the conference for me, nor did it seem to define it for the majority of the attendees. Indeed, it might have even highlighted what makes FRIENDS so special and why young people are so excited to return year after year.
Asa first year attendee. I wasn’t sure what to expect from FRIENDS. With a background in speech language pathology, my interaction with stuttering had predominantly been a therapeutic and academic one, mostly existing within the walls of the clinic. I had hoped FRIENDS would be an opportunity for me to learn from and listen to the thoughts, feelings and experiences of the attending families. Indeed, upon arriving in Aurora, I didn’t have long to wait before being engulfed by the convention ambiance. As I was heading up to my room after checking in, I happened to share the elevator with a young man. He had a ready smile and asked if I was here for the convention. When I replied in the affirmative, he said, “Oh you are going to love E, this is my seventh year.” “What makes you come back?” I asked. “Because these people are like my family,” was the prompt and sincere reply. Family, it was a word that reverberated through the three days of the convention. Family is synonymous with safety, love and acceptance, and those sentiments were truly felt and reflected. Below I would like to share with you a few of my experiences with three components of this family: the youth, the parents and the speech language pathologists. The joy of the children and the friendly openness of the young adults were obvious to me from the very beginning of the convention. I was surprised at how quickly new attendees became part of the group and even more surprised at the popularity of the open microphone night. Anyone who knows how hard it into get teenagers and pre-teens to speak in front of an audience, let alone an audience with so many new faces, would be impressed by the open volunteering of this group. In the workshops the youth seemed to come alive when given opportunities to debate topics such as “to change or not to change” in which they shared their thoughts on therapy, identity, personal choice and commitment. An ethos of ownership and respect for an individual’s personal journey was fostered during these workshops, and this carried over into activities such as the practice excursions. During these outings, each person decided what their individual goals were, and whether they included the use of speech strategies. After years of being told what to do by therapists, I perceived this as a liberating and empowering experience. Without a doubt the highlight of the convention for the youth seemed to be the Karaoke night. As adults, we basked in and were captivated by the enthusiasm, delight and lack of self-consciousness displayed by the youth. Songs were joyously belted out as hands were clasped in friendship and waved in unison.
The parents that I had the privilege of chatting with over the weekend shared with me variations of a common theme. FRIENDS was a gift they said. One mother told me, “Before we came to FRIENDS, I had so much guilt that went along with my child’s stuttering”. I realized over and over how healing and safe the FRIENDS rooms were to parents. Parents felt free to talk about their pain, share their stories.