CHICAGO — Chicago resident Precious Tahiru just wants to hear her 2-year-old son say three things — Mama, Dada and his name, Paris Thompson. Tahiru noticed a delay in her child’s speech development at 10 months and set forth on trying to help him. That journey has entailed speech therapy, occupational therapy, as well as visiting an ear, nose and throat physician.

“When I took him, the doctor said your son hears like he’s in an airplane or underwater, so you guys talking to him, he can hear, but he can’t hear you clearly,” Tahiru said. “Then he had a tongue tie (a condition that restricts a tongue’s range of motion). He couldn’t move his tongue at all. And he couldn’t breathe through his nose because his adenoids were so big, so he underwent surgery.”

Since then, Tahiru and her fiance have seen a change in Paris — he’s moving his tongue, making sounds that he wasn’t making before.

“You can tell he can hear us better ... he’s (more) quick to look at us now than he was before he got the surgery,” she said.

And Paris’ journey continues. That’s why Tahiru’s excited about the opening of the DePaul Speech and Language Clinic at 2400 N. Sheffield Ave. What used to be the admissions office for DePaul University has been transformed to a space where youth and adults alike can get free services from speech language pathologists and clinicians who can aid people with problems with speech, language, communication and swallowing disorders.

“We do everything from the neck up,” said Treasyri Williams Wood clinic director and DePaul clinical assistant professor. “Anything to do with the cognitive processes — attention, organization, focus, language, speech, stuttering, fluency, swallowing. Just think of all of the people who have been placed on ventilators for COVID. You have to wean them off, teach them how to swallow, rehabilitate all of those muscles, rehabilitate their speech. That falls within our scope of practice and children on the autism spectrum, developmental delays, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, all of that we deal with. We have babies in the NICU who are born premature and need to work with speech language pathologists to acquire swallowing milestones and to develop language. We are truly an expansive scope.”

The Lincoln Park facility has been two years in the making, and launched in tandem with DePaul’s new master’s degree program in Speech Language Pathology. Students in the program will work alongside faculty and provide care and therapy to the public. Services will be offered in English and Spanish; DePaul’s clinic and academic program also will offer specialized training for providing speech and language services to bilingual families and their children with disabilities. In addition to housing the clinic, the space will hold classrooms and hands-on learning for the Occupational Therapy graduate program that will launch in fall 2022. The School of Nursing and the Department of Psychology will collaborate on research and learning within the clinic.

The clinic held an open house Sept. 23. According to Jayne Jaskolski, director of the Speech Language Pathology graduate program, there’s a waiting list already for screenings that will begin in October. The site will offer assistance to the public on a donation basis (which won’t require insurance) or payment on a sliding scale.

“We rely on the kindness of donors. ... It’s really that altruistic mission focus of getting people who normally would not have access to these types of services access, and particularly for bilingual clients and people of color,” said Williams Wood. “Our big focus is on diversity, equity and inclusion, really training up and exposing our future speech language pathologists to the world for where it is right now.”

Delilah Martin is a first year graduate student and wants to be able to give people their voice again. She’s trying to decide her niche in the speech pathology field. She’s interested in both sides of the age spectrum, helping children in schools and helping seniors. With a minor in psychology, she wants to be able to incorporate the mental health aspect into her work with the community.

“I feel as clinicians, we need to be able to understand the mood of our patients to better assess them,” she said. “I love that the clinic offers free services. I think that’s an amazing thing and makes me happy to be a part of this program.”

Jaskolski and Williams Wood said the DePaul Speech and Language Clinic is the sole site offering such services for free in the heart of the city. Their location isn’t limited to certain cases or disorders.

“We’re trying to rise to meet the needs of the community,” Williams Wood said. That includes making diversity, inclusivity and access a priority both in the clinic and on the academic side. Williams Wood said she’s done supervision with future clinicians who have never interacted with a person of color, or with someone from a different background. This space will help bridge that gap in a safe environment. Being a speech pathologist of color, Williams Wood is passionate about creating speech language pathologists who look like the populations they serve.

“Our clients need to be able to look into the face of their providers and see themselves — that’s very important,” she said. “Often in these programs with university clinics and free clinics, we have nonwhite clients being serviced by this homogenous group of people that really don’t have cultural competence. ... We have to train our graduate clinicians, and we have to expose them to a vast variety of cultures and different practices so that they can be ready and that starts here in our clinic.”

Martin says cultural competency, especially in a field like speech pathology, is very important.

“You can’t promote something that you also don’t embody yourself,” she said. “To see that we have a diverse faculty and to know there are people that understand, clinicians that look like you and understand you, bring that comfort and it’s something that makes me happy.”

Faculty and students expect to treat 400 patients in the clinic’s first year. Tahiru found the facility through a referral from Marillac St. Vincent, where her son attends early Pre-K. Paris is now one of the clinic’s first clients.

“I want to see Black and brown children running across our quad and receiving our services and I want them to feel like this clinic is their clinic,” Williams Wood said. “We say Chicago is our classroom, community is our focus. We have been blessed with this clinic space and this environment and these resources, and we’re giving them back to the community.”

Martin said seeing a Black woman like Williams Wood lead the clinic gives her hope. Tahiru is also hopeful about the possibilities of the clinic helping her son.

“Honestly, I want him to go at his pace, but of course I have more expectations for him,” she said. “I just want to hear three words. All I can do now is continue to give him all the resources that he needs, and DePaul will be a great resource.”

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