School of Speech, Language, & Hearing Sciences

Changing Two Lives With One Clinic

Chelsie Saunders is very excited to be starting her second year in the SLHS master’s program for speech-language pathology. After she completes her degree this year, she plans on a career working in the school system to help children develop the language skills they need.She points out that not being able to be understood when you answer playground questions like, “What’s your name? How old are you? Do you want to play?” is a severe handicap for a young child. She should know because she watched her son Marlin go through it.

Chelsie and Marlin about the time he started therapy
Chelsie and Marlin about the time he started therapy.

Marlin was very slow to develop speech, and was not speaking by 18 months, when most children have developed clear words. By the time he was two years old, his speech was still unintelligible, so his parents sought treatment. A speech-language pathologist at Rady Children’s Hospital confirmed a speech delay and recommended therapy. However, because there was not a physical deformity responsible for his lack of clear speech, the family’s insurance would not cover the cost. Faced with an out-of-pocket cost of more than $600 a month for weekly group therapy sessions, they reluctantly decided they had to find a different route. They spent the next six months researching other ways to get Marlin the therapy he needed. In the meantime, Marlin found it difficult to interact with his peers.

Chelsie stumbled upon the SDSU Speech-Language Clinic. At that time, the clinic operated on a sliding fee scale, so it was an affordable option. (Since then, the Speech-Language Clinic has transitioned to a donation-based system and welcomes all donations.) Marlin was able to have an entire semester’s worth of twice-weekly one-on-one therapy for less than a single month’s cost at Rady Children’s Hospital. In only one semester the little boy’s speech became much clearer, though this is faster than is typical. Marlin worked with a student therapist, supervised by a licensed clinician. Chelsie watched through the window as her son and his therapist played “games” that delighted Marlin and helped correct his speech. These sessions, coupled with parent coaching and Chelsie’s ability to integrate her newly learned strategies with every day activities, supported Marlin’s quick response to therapy. Chelsie noted that, “He always clapped his hands when I said we were going to therapy. He had so much fun each time.”

The semester’s worth of therapy turned out to be life changing for both Marlin and his mother. As Chelsie watched Marlin’s progress, she knew she wanted to be able to help other children in the same way. She felt called to help other children overcome speech difficulties and gain the confidence to interact with the world. Unfortunately, she had not had the opportunity to pursue her own education at that point, so it was not going to be an easy goal to accomplish.

Marlin finished his therapy in June. By September, Chelsie had enrolled in community college to get her associates degree. Then she transferred to SDSU, where she completed her bachelor’s degree while achieving straight A’s. Now, Chelsie is almost done with her master’s degree and can finally see “light at the end of the tunnel.”

Marlin and ChelsieMarlin is now a bright seven year old who is doing well in school and the family has grown to include a beautiful four-year-old daughter. Marlin is attending a dual language Spanish/English immersion school since he has relatives that live in Mexico. His speech is clear in both languages!

As part of the master’s program, Chelsie is now providing speech-language therapy to children just like Marlin and those with more complex needs. In fact, last year her therapy room was the same room where she watched Marlin. She says that, “memories wash over me every time I open the door.” She has been working as part of the Puede! project, which is training both speech-language pathology and school psychology students to collaboratively work with Dual Language and English Learner students with high needs. The project is funded through an interdisciplinary training grant from the Department of Education and headed by Dr. Sonja Pruitt-Lord (SLHS) and Carol Robinson and Jennica Paz (School Psychology).

Chelsie is looking forward to finishing her education and starting a career working with children in schools. She continues to be inspired by Marlin and the transformation she saw in him through the SDSU Speech-Language Clinic.