Royal Oak, MI (Detroit Free Press)
For years, his stuttering caused Cameron Francek to keep quiet in social situations. It made him nervous during job interviews. He dreaded school assignments that required a presentation and would find ways to avoid them, like coming in before class and speaking in front of only the teacher.
"Stuttering was controlling the person I was trying to be," said Francek, 26, of Royal Oak, Mich. "I was kind of struggling in school and my speech was a grind, and I was just kind of down and out."
He has a degree in speech pathology, plays sports and has many friends. But the stuttering was always there, defining his life, getting in the way.
Finally, he decided he'd had enough.
So he decided to embark on a project where every day for 100 days, he approaches strangers and attempts to educate and spread awareness about the condition.
The project also was aimed to help Francek overcome the tremendous anxiety he felt when talking to people. His plan was to approach as many strangers as possible and strike up conversations, to force himself to face his biggest fears and hopefully learn to feel free being himself in the presence of others.
"As a person who stutters, there's a lot of opportunity to kind of take the easy way out in school and jobs. I would just decide that it was too hard or scary to do and that applies to all kinds of things," he said. "But I was hoping through this project I would take a ton of chances and to kind of prove that I can do anything."
According to the National Stuttering Association (NSA), stuttering affects about 1% of the population. It usually begins between 2 and 5 years old, though most children who stutter can recover speech fluency, as it's called, without therapy. But some will stutter for the rest of their lives. There's no known cause of it, and no true cure for it.
Francek launched his project Feb. 1 with a blog -- 100stutterproject.blogspot.com -- not only to keep track of his progress, but also to have a tangible base for his mission, something that would prod him to continue approaching people no matter much he didn't want to on a given day.
"As a person who stutters, there's a lot of opportunity to kind of take the easy way out in school and jobs," he said. "I would just decide that it was too hard or scary to do, and that applies to all kinds of things. But I have to be accountable to the project and I just have to do it and take a ton of chances. If there's a choice involved, I probably would pass on it."
Three students sat in the pale spring sun on a bench in the middle of the Wayne State University campus.
It was Day 63 of his project. He walked up to them.
"Hi there. My name is Cameron. I'm a person who stutters," he said. "I'm doing a project where every day for 100 days, I'm disclosing to people that I'm a person who stutters in kind of an effort to expose people to it and educate people and spread awareness. Is it OK if I ask you a couple of questions about it?"
He asked whether they knew what causes stuttering.
"Maybe it's emotionally based?" one of the girls offered sincerely. "Some traumatic experience that causes it?"
"Maybe someone's nervous?" the other girl asked.
Francek has heard these kinds of incorrect guesses before. It's among the motivations behind the project.
"I'm trying to control conclusions that people come up with," he explained later. "If I can educate people on it, the truth about stuttering will spread."
His tone remained friendly as he corrected them.
"It was something I was born with," he said. "My grandpa stuttered as well."
He handed them a little flier he'd made that notes, among other things, that "stuttering is not caused by emotional problems and it is not a 'nervous' disorder." It also implores people to "please be patient and give us the time we need to speak."
It took only a minute or so to make his presentation. When he was done, he said, "Thank you for your time," and walked away.
Another day of the project, another set of strangers spoken to.
Most people are kind when they first hear his stutter. Some say silly things, like telling him to relax when they see him halting as he speaks. Very few openly make fun of him, though he has run into people like that before.
When he talks, his first words often flow, but then his speech sometimes gets momentarily snagged in the middle of a sentence until he can force the next syllable out. Sometimes the pause is short, sometimes it's several silent seconds long as his mouth struggles to express the words his mind has already chosen.
The effect on people is palpable. There's something endearing about his determination, how earnestly he tries to speak through the stutter. It gives him a hint of vulnerability, and people's faces soften into admiration as he speaks to them.
"You aren't ever positive about how the person is, if they're cool about it, if they have time to talk to you, if they're interested, so it is kind of scary," he said. "But as long as I try, that's all I can do."
In the classroom
A few dozen people packed the classroom April 4 at Wayne State.
Francek sat in front of them all. They were here to listen to him talk.
He was with three other members of the NSA to talk to speech pathology students in a graduate-level class called, simply, Stuttering. They came to tell of their struggles, how they have coped, and the ways they have adapted to this aspect of their lives.
"After this project is over, I want to be comfortable speaking," Francek said. "I want to be a better communicator. I'm hoping to be closer to the kind of person that I'm trying to be."
He had come to class wearing a wristband that he often hands out to strangers he approaches.
It said "Stutter Beautifully."
It meant instead of trying to hide his stuttering or being afraid of it, embrace it.
"I'm Cameron," he said. He stuttered for a brief moment and kept going as if nothing had happened. "I am a person who stutters."