Elaine Kelman is head of the Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children on Pine Street.
She talks to Katy Salter about why stammering is so complex, visits from Palin and Colin Firth, and how trips to Exmouth Market help the kids grow in confidence…
How would you sum up the work of the Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children?
It’s a specialist centre run by the NHS and supported by a charity called Action for Stammering Children. We have young people aged two to 25 coming here from across the country, and provide them with expert services. We also do a lot of research into stammering, and training for therapists from across the world.
Why is it so important?
Stammering is a complex problem. Children who stammer often have acute feelings of anxiety and embarrassment about speaking. They can underperform at school and be socially isolated – even within their own families. It can really limit their potential.
What’s your role?
I’m the head of the centre and also a consultant speech and language therapist. I never stop learning – it’s a fascinating field and there’s always new information coming out. It’s been the most wonderful career.
What does it mean for a child with a stammer to meet other children in the same position?
It can be an enormously important moment. Often children who stammer say “it feels like I’m the only one in the world”. For them to come to somewhere where other people walk in their shoes, it gives them a context to practice their skills and an extra courage. They make friends.
When you get a case of a high-profile young person with a stammer – such as Musharaf from Educating Yorkshire – does that help the charity?
Things like Educating Yorkshire and The King’s Speech raise supportive awareness. It does also mean we get extra interest in our services, which is great because stammering can be a bit hidden and overlooked. In the past sometimes stammering has been portrayed as an object of comedy.
Can you tell me how Michael Palin began supporting the centre?
He became involved just over 20 years ago. His father had quite a severe stammer, which had a significant impact both on his father and their family life. Michael was asked by John Cleese to play the part of someone who stammers in A Fish Called Wanda and he depicted exactly his father’s stammer. As a result he was invited by the charity to become involved, and then he fabulously agreed to give his name to the centre. We opened to an enormous media frenzy. It really put us on the map.
And Colin Firth is a supporter, too?
Yes, Colin Firth is one of our vice presidents, as a result of his experiences doing The King’s Speech. He has come in a couple of times and is keen to support us. It’s a good day when Colin or Michael comes in! It’s an enormous lift for the children. One of the children once said “I’ve never felt important but I must be pretty important if someone like Michael Palin comes in to see me.”
‘Michael Palin visits regularly – hes a fabulous supporter’
Has the centre always been in Clerkenwell?
Yes. We were in the Finsbury Health Centre until three years ago. It’s a very special building. It was designed by Berthold Lubetkin and is Grade I-listed. It was a happy home but we outgrew it, and had the opportunity to refurbish the building next door.
Is the area a good base?
It’s a fabulous base. It’s very central. If you’ve got people coming from far and wide it couldn’t be better served by public transport. It feels a very safe and pleasant area for us to go out of the building, and that’s an important part of what we do. When a child’s experimenting with talking to more people, we’ll get out into Exmouth Market, talk to people, and it feels very safe to do that.
Where do you like to go in the area in your free time?
Café Kick is a preferred place for everyone to go to on a Friday night! I tried the new place – Café Pistou – and it was really lovely, they do the itsy bitsy platters.
What do you like most about the area?
It has a wonderful history. We did a treasure hunt around Clerkenwell last year. It was such an eye-opener about the history, looking up at the buildings.
What does the centre mean to the people that use it?
Some of the parents write amazing things. I read a letter the other day which said they felt like they had “come to the end of a long dark tunnel and there was a bright light”. People talk about the centre as a haven. For the children it’s a place where they can feel just like any other child.
What would you like readers to know about the charity?
That every contribution makes an enormous difference to the life of a child who stammers.