Stuttering Kids, Teens Find Relief Through 'Our Time'

PHOTO: Alina Davis, center, sings a song she co-wrote with her friends at Camp Our Time.PlayABC News
WATCH Camp Helps Stuttering Young People Build Self Esteem

Alina Davis of Leesport, Pa. was bullied so badly her sophomore year that she left and finished high school at home. The bullies' motivation? Alina's stuttering.

The smart and outgoing girl recounted to ABC News the abuse she endured simply because of her speech impediment.

"I was mocked in the hallways. I found things about me on the bathroom wall. And one day after school I went onto Facebook and I found a page all about me and how I speak, and it was, it was tough. It was really tough. That whole year I lost who I was," she said.

Alina's high school experience is all too common, causing many kids who stutter to withdraw into silence.

The 2011 Oscar award-winning film, "The King's Speech," showcased King George VI of Great Britain's struggle with stuttering. Alina recalled the scene she most relates to: "When he was emotional and crying about it because stuttering has that effect on me."

At age 16, Alina's stuttering, and the way people reacted to it, drove her into depression. But then a speech pathologist suggested she look into a New York-based program for kids who stutter called Our Time.

Alina liked the idea, but New York is two and half hours from her Pennsylvania home. Despite the distance, she and her mother made the commute to the Big Apple, where she says she found her lifeline.

Our Time was created by Taro Alexander, a New York City actor who also stutters. Alexander uses his theater experience to teach kids to write about their feelings and to turn their words into songs and plays. Most people who stutter are perfectly fluent when they sing and some also lose their stutter when they act so Our Time finds success building self-esteem, confidence and communication skills on stage.

The kids' lyrics range from heartbreaking to triumphant, and Alexander said he sees their performances bring transformation.

"You see a kid standing onstage, looking at hundreds of people, cheering for them. And you see that pride in the way that they walk, you see that pride in their smile, you see that pride in a twinkle in their eye," he said.

The most important thing for these kids to know, Alexander said, is that they're not alone.

"I was 26 before I met anyone else who stutters so that feeling, day in and day out, 'I'm the only one' -- I thought, wouldn't it be great if there was a place where young people who stutter could come and know that it's okay to be themselves."

Nowhere is it more "okay" for them to be themselves than at Camp Our Time, a summer camp run by Our Time in North Carolina. Kids who stutter (and their family or friends) aged 8 to 18 from all around the country gather at the camp for 10 days of summer fun and an escape from the real world.

Camp rule no. 1? No one is allowed to finish anyone's sentences. Campers' stutters range from mild to severe, some coupled with other disorders.

Speech pathologist Joe Klein of Appalachian State University, who participarted in a round table discussion held at the camp, cleared up some common misconceptions on stuttering.

"People don't stutter because they are 'nervous.' People don't stutter because 'they don't know what they are saying.' Some people will say they know more words, because they are always word changing, so they have to know all the synonyms, you know, for all the words they can't say," he said.

The precise cause for stuttering is not clear, but research has shown it has both genetic and neurological components. Five percent of all kids stutter but 75 percent of them will grow out of it without any therapy. That leaves 1 percent of adults, or more than 68 million people worldwide, with a stutter.

As for a cure, Klein said, "There is no cure for stuttering. Once somebody has been stuttering for about three or four years, they are always going to stutter. And so, our job as therapists is to make them the best communicator they can be."

So why don't people stutter when they sing? Klein explained, "Singing is really driven from a different part of the brain. The person knows the words by heart so there's no word finding or anything else. There's a lot of constant phonation. The words are produced more slowly when you sing. You elongate the words. So, there are a lot of different reasons."

Alina credits Our Time with helping her regain her spirit.

"Our Time has changed my life. Without it I wouldn't be accepting of how I speak and, and now I am. I have friends who know how I feel and that is amazing."

She has taken her newfound confidence to help make the transition from home school to college in New York City where she's studying to become a speech pathologist. She's also made her television acting debut starring as a stuttering woman in an episode of ABC's "What Would You Do?"

The experience, she said, was "a lot of fun" and she was also pleased to see most of the bystanders in the "What Would You Do?" scenario stand up for a stutterer. Watch the scene here.

Alina said she still encounters impatience and insensitivity on occasion but said she is better equipped to deal with it. She is now a volunteer at Our Time and a Camp Our Time counselor. She credits her stutter with making her a more compassionate person. In fact, Alina said that if she were offered a pill to make her stuttering vanish, she would probably decline.