Sean Houck refused to let his stuttering condition get in the way of his dreams to serve his country. Through his perseverance and the generosity of his community, the Hamilton native became a proud member of the United States Army who has presented public speeches virtually stutter free.
Houck, 20, grew up in Hamilton and struggled with stuttering since he was in elementary school.
“It always frustrated him but he just went with it,” said Doreen Dolan, Houck’s mother.
When Houck was in second grade, he started working with Suzanne Fornaro, a speech pathologist in Hamilton Township. They worked together on his speech for several years. As Houck got older, he struggled to find the time for regular speech therapy, but Houck and Fornaro stayed in touch.
Houck grew up wanting to serve his country since he was a child and “never deterred from it,” Dolan said. His grandfather, a U.S. Navy veteran, suggested that Houck go back to speech therapy to improve his chances of being enlisted in the Navy.
“During his entire junior and senior years of high school, he drove himself and came for speech every week,” Fornaro said. But even though Houck worked with Fornaro weekly, his stuttering persisted. Ultimately, the Navy did not admit Houck because of his stuttering condition.
Although Houck was discouraged, he was determined to find a way to serve his country. He was willing to go from one recruiting office to another, if that’s what it took, until he was accepted into the service.
Houck’s persistence paid off. He was accepted into the U.S. Army and began basic training in February 2017. He kept in touch with Fornaro, sending her photos of his travels with the Army to Korea and the Philippines, among other countries. He is currently stationed in Hawaii.
“He’s really the best kid on the planet,” Fornaro said. “He’ll text me, ‘Miss Suzanne, I just wanted to let you know that I’m in the Philippines and I’m doing OK.’ That’s the kind of kid he is.”
In December 2017, Houck came home to visit for the holidays. When he visited Fornaro on New Year’s Day, his stuttering was still evident. He shared his frustration with Fornaro, about how he felt his stuttering held him back in the Army. Fornaro promised Houck that by the time he came home again to visit in June 2018, she would find a way to get him the Speech Easy, a device that would help ease his stuttering. The device costs $4,500, and Houck couldn’t afford to purchase it.
‘When we heard that Sean needed help, we stepped up. He’s military, and we support our military 110 percent.’
The Speech Easy auditory feedback device is worn on one ear and looks similar to a hearing aid. The device alters sounds that go through it, so the person who wears the device can hear their voice at a slight time delay and at a different pitch. This produces what is known as the “choral effect,” when someone with a stuttering condition is virtually stutter free while they sing together with others.
Fornaro called Speech Easy to find out if the company would be willing to donate the device to Houck. The company apologetically denied her request, due to the overwhelming amount of similar requests it receives. But she was not deterred.
Fornaro started a GoFundMe page, which read, in part, “Please support us as we raise funds to help Sean. He is an awesome young man who wants nothing more than to serve his country.” Local family, friends, and veteran groups started to donate funds immediately. Saint John Vianney High School’s Military Support Club donated $1,000 towards Houck’s device. The GoFundMe campaign raised $3,710 in total.
Since the community had made it possible to afford the Speech Easy, Fornaro needed to find professionals who could fit Houck for the device and create the ear mold for it.
Fornaro contacted Kim Sabourin, fluency disorder specialist and clinical instructor at Temple University Speech Language Hearing Center. Sabourin offered to evaluate and fit Houck for the device, with the help of four of her graduate students, at no cost to Houck when he returned home to visit this past June. She also secured a military discount for the device, lowering the cost from $4,500 to $3,800.
But a week before Houck was due to arrive home, Sabourin emailed Fornaro to notify her that the audiologist who played an important role in the evaluating process had resigned. Fornaro and Sabourin contacted several companies before Fornaro reached out to Evans Audiology and Hearing Aid Center in Hamilton. The company offered to complete the evaluation and the ear mold at no cost to Houck, to thank him for his service.
“Our practice is a family practice,” said Kathleen Evans, audiologist and co-owner of Evans Audiology and Hearing Aid Center. “My husband’s dad, Paul Evans, was the founder, and he always gave back to the community. So when we heard that Sean needed help, we stepped up. He’s military, and we support our military 110 percent.”
When Houck returned home to visit in June, he found that Fornaro had fulfilled her promise to him. Houck completed the evaluation and was fitted for the Speech Easy. The device worked, and it was time to celebrate. Saint John Vianney High School’s Military Support Club along with Warriors’ Watch Riders, a military support group, surprised Houck and honored him at the local American Legion. They presented Houck with a military challenge coin, a token of appreciation for a job well done and to signify his acceptance into the military.
“He was all smiles,” said Dolan, who leaves her son with the Irish blessing, “May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind always be at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face and the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his hand.”