Scottish Rite Center Aims to Expand Speech Services

There’s something worth talking about in West Ashley. Trouble is, some of those who know about it are the very ones who are having difficulty speaking up.

Such as 5-year-old Emma Seymour.

Emma’s grandparents come to Charleston from Wisconsin every winter to spend time with their grandchildren and take time away from the harsh weather. When they are in town, they bring Emma to the Scottish Rite Temple on Sam Rittenberg Boulevard for her speech lessons. When Emma was roughly 2, her grandmother, Eileen Seymour, became concerned about her speech.

“She was frustrated because she couldn’t express herself,” Seymour said. “It wasn’t long after she began coming here that we started to see that reverse.”

The Scottish Rite Temple, a division of the Freemasons, offers free therapy and services to preschoolers ages 2-6 with language-speech disorders. Avis Griffith, speech-language pathologist at the Charleston Scottish Rite Childhood Language Disorders Center, said the work being done at the temple is a well-kept local secret.

“I don’t think that Scottish Rite has done a very good job of honking its horn,” Griffith said jokingly. “As far as I know, we are the only facility anywhere in the area that can provide speech and language services at no cost to the families. We’re able to do that because of the generosity of the Scottish Rite.”

The center offers speech-language evaluations and therapy, as well as speech, language and hearing screening, parent training, student practicums for graduate and undergraduate students and statewide in-service training for speech-language pathologists.

But to little Emma, all that matters to her is that she can tell her brother when he is making her angry. Emma has joined the world of verbal 5-year-olds, and her grandmother said she has become a different child. Emma is more interactive, less shy and just seems happier, she said.

Griffith said, the ramifications are immense for these children, going well beyond the obvious benefits of learning language and the correct pronunciation of words. While things such as expressive language, phonology, or sound production, and central auditory processing are areas of focus for speech and language therapy, Griffith said their work is not limited to verbal communication. Nonverbal communication such as eye contact, body space and hugging also can show improvement with speech therapy.

“A child who is noncommunicative is not interested in interacting with the rest of the world,” she said. “Communication skills are the core of everything,” including self-esteem and the ability to learn.

While Emma works on expressive language, 4-year-old Penlan Griffiths is working on sound production in his speech lesson. Penlan is beginning his second year at the Scottish Rite Center. When he began speech therapy, his mother said, his vocabulary consisted of about five words. “He wouldn’t sing for a long time in school,” Elizabeth Griffiths said, but now Penlan sings out. “He wants to be a rock star. A train engineer and a rock star.”

Griffith, who has been a speech-language pathologist for more than 20 years, began the Charleston program in August 2004 inside existing temple facilities. She treats 11 children in the center. She would like to be able to help more.

“The demand for our services is huge,” Griffith said. “We have a large waiting list statewide. The Charleston area is particularly needy because of the closing of the Charleston Speech and Hearing Center, which was a United Way center downtown,” she said.

Last year, the lodge held a groundbreaking for the new Charleston center. The capital campaign seeks to raise $4 million, $3 million of which will be put in an endowment for operating costs. The lodge proposes to build a 5,000-square-foot facility on the grounds of the Scottish Rite and lease it back to the charitable foundation, according to Bill Martin, general secretary of the Charleston valley.

When completed, the Charleston facility will join the state’s two other centers in Columbia and Greenville. The Columbia center opened almost 20 years ago, followed by the Greenville center in 2001. Each of those centers treat about 30 children a week, Griffith said. Griffith foresees the Charleston center, in 10 years, being open five days a week with at least five speech pathologists. “That would be my goal,” she said.

But that depends on fundraising.

Martin said fundraising is slow at best. Right now, existing space and funding limit speech and language therapy to two full days a week.

The Charleston lodge has roughly 2,700 members with about 7,000 members statewide, but membership has been in decline for the past 20 years, according to Martin.

“What we are in need of now are some lump-sum donations in order to build the facility,” Griffith said. “We’re definitely bursting at the seams.

“That’s the most frustrating thing about my job,” Griffith said. “We know how to put good clinicians in place. We know how to treat children. We just need the funding to do it.”

Lisa Foster is a freelance writer in Goose Creek.

How to help

To help the Charleston Scottish Rite Childhood Language Disorders Center, donations may be made payable to the Scottish Rite Foundation of South Carolina Inc. and mailed to P.O. Box 30817, Charleston, SC 29417-0817.