Former Shady Trail speech therapy campers talk it up at reunion
Now you can’t get them to stop talking, especially when it comes to how much the Northport camp helped them to get over their stuttering. About 45 former campers and counselors recently gathered there for a two-day reunion.
“It taught me how to relax and taught me how to speak fluently,” said Mark Singer, of Philadelphia, who was at the camp from 1960-63. “It was a wonderful program. It was a fabulous experience for boys and I wish it was still here.”
The camp was founded in 1932 by John Clancy, who was a stutterer, as a summer program for boys with speech and language impairments. Back then campers slept in tents. It moved to its present 26-acre location just south of Northport in 1947, and now has 27 buildings. In 1949 the camp was purchased by the University Of Michigan and became the University of Michigan Speech Camp. Clancy, who had earned a master’s degree in speech correction, was the camp’s director.
The camp was mostly staffed by graduate students from the University of Michigan and Michigan State University and boys – most of them severe stutterers – would come from all over the country for the eight-week program, famous for its high rate of success, with more than 2,000 children staying there through the years.
“We were literally forced to talk and to use what we learned as much as possible,” said Jim Emery, of Albuquerque, N. M., who helped plan the reunion. “We were expected to do it and if we didn’t do it we got told about it.”
Many of the boys who attended Shady Trails had a severe stuttering problem and former campers tell of boys that would ‘freeze up’ for 15 minutes or more, or even pass out from the effort of trying to speak. But the intensity of the program, which was focused and delivered in a controlled environment, often did the trick.
“A great majority of the kids would leave the camp fluent,” said Ash Bishop, of Irvine, Calif., who was an athletic director at the camp. Some of the kids with the most severe speech impediments made amazing progress, he said. So much so that “We would have done this for free,” Bishop said.
But probably the most beneficial part of the program was that the boys were among other children who also stuttered.
“When I came here I had never met another stutterer,” said Bob Vorhees, of West Bloomfield, who was at the camp in 1959 and 1965. “Because you were around other people that stuttered that stigma was taken away.”
Many of the men have memories of being made fun of and laughed at as boys because of their stutter.
“What bothered me was in school when you got up in front of class and kids started laughing you stuttered more,” said Joe Barresi, of Traverse City, who was at the camp in 1951.
As boys they were afraid to talk in school, so many felt like they had no voice. The camp, they said, gave them a chance to be heard.
“You could speak and fail and still be accepted,” said Tim Carter, of Canton, who was a camper in 1959-60, and was a staff counselor from 1967- 74.
Barresi, who grew up in Northport, remembers laying on a mat and learning to relax his stomach muscles, which would clench up when he tried to talk, making communication nearly impossible. Barresi’s stutter plagued him throughout his life until he retired, he said. That’s when he was able to fully relax and enjoy a mostly stressfree life, he said.
The Shady Trails program had a big emphasis on athletics, with boys spending half their day in athletics and half their day in speech therapy. The idea was that if their confidence was built up physically, it would spill over into other areas of their lives.
Children were also taken out into the community twice a week, where they would have assignments such as asking a complete stranger for directions. It was a difficult task for most of the boys and they would practice before going out.
“As a camper I just recall that it was such a well-rounded program,” said Bob Crissman, of Schoolcraft.
In the 1970s the camp shifted to a program for deaf children. It also became co-ed. Brooke Publiski, who is deaf, was a camper from 1991-’94.
“I wanted to come back in 1995 and become a counselor, but they closed,” Publiski said. “I loved it from day one. It’s an awesome place and it helped me to be not as shy.”
Shady Trails closed in 1995, but reopened three years later and is now a day camp for children 5-14 years old. Run by Jack Moorlag, this year the camp hosted children from 23 states and four foreign countries.