By Erica Howell

In the heart of Old Dominion University's vibrant campus, the ODU Speech and Hearing Clinic has been a beacon of hope for individuals with speech, language, and hearing disorders for the past 65 years. Its history is rich, and its mission is unwavering.

In 1955, the clinic started as a pilot project, led by Dr. Reuben Cooper. This endeavor aimed to determine if a dedicated facility for diagnosis and therapy was justified. It began by providing services for both speech and hearing disorders, and the Ward's Corner Lions Club provided critical funding of $500 per year for three years. It later became a full-time clinic in 1958, securing a permanent place on campus. This growth attracted an advisory board of medical and lay professionals from the community, ensuring its commitment to serving the greater good.

Nick and Martha Bountress, who dedicated a combined 75 years to the program, recount their journey. In 1975. their journey to ODU began with a Greyhound bus ride from Texas. They walked into the Lion's Child Study Center, met the dean at the time, Dwight Newell, and were entrusted with the mission of building a program that would serve both the community and the university. Their primary goal was to attain accreditation, a milestone that would determine the fate of the program.

In 1988, the clinic achieved national accreditation, a milestone that remains etched in Martha's memory. She exclaims, "I can tell you what I wore that day, it was such a huge deal."

The influx of dedicated students quickly followed accreditation with 150 to 200 students applying for 15 to 16 spots. They gradually increased the number of students they accepted. The students brought exceptional qualities to the program and went on to pass their national exams with a 100% success rate. Under the Bountresses' guidance, the program continually sought feedback from employers, strengthening the curriculum and ensuring students were well-equipped to enter the field.

An invaluable turning point in the program's history was the involvement of the Tidewater Scottish Rite, spearheaded by Jack Goodwin. Martha described Mr. Goodwin as a "faithful steward" who went above and beyond in supporting the clinic. Nick said, "Anything that the state and the university could not provide us, the Scottish Rite provided us. They do remarkable work for us. They are the lifeblood of the program."

A living testament to the Bountresses’ work, Chila Nicholson, graduated with her BS in Speech Pathology and Audiology in 1999 and went on to earn her master’s degree in 2003. She initially considered a career in teaching; however, a career exploration class and a shadowing experience with a speech pathologist transformed her life. She fell in love with the world of speech pathology. After gaining experience in the Suffolk Public Schools, Chila attended a SHAV (Speech and Hearing Association of Virginia) conference, where she crossed paths with Martha Bountress. Their regular communication led Chila to become an adjunct clinic supervisor, eventually securing a full-time position as the current clinic supervisor in Fall 2009.

Chila advises prospective students: "If you like working with people, being a lifelong learner, and like supporting people in creative ways to help them find their voice, then speech would be a great option for you."

The clinic has evolved over the years and now stands as a beacon of hope for patients of all ages. It serves those with speech, language, and hearing difficulties, offering therapies for a wide range of issues, including articulation, language deficits, aphasia, and accent modification. What sets it apart is its self-referral system, enabling individualized and affordable care.

Nancy McWilliams, a grateful patient, attests to the life-changing support provided by Ms. Chila Nicholson. Nancy explained, “Three years ago when I had a stroke and I was diagnosed with aphasia, I had difficulty talking.” She described her frustrating experience at other clinics, feeling as though she wasn’t making the progress she felt she was capable of. “But now the story is a happy one! With each new individual speech specialist [at ODU] over the past 15 months, my clinic work has been a joy, and I can truly feel that my speech is getting closer and closer to what it was!” Nancy's story embodies the clinic's mission to restore hope and communication.

Today, the ODU Speech and Hearing Clinic is an integral part of the university's Communication Sciences & Disorders program. It maintains high standards, with services provided by students under the direct supervision of certified faculty. Its mission is to offer comprehensive assessment and intervention services.

Notably, the Tidewater Scottish Rite continues to provide vital support, enabling patients with speech and language disorders to access services. The clinic also sponsors a Scottish Rite summer therapy program, offering therapy scholarships to children in need. Local Sertoma clubs have also provided generous contributions to support clinic activities for many years.

The clinic's commitment to serving the community is reflected in its diagnostic and treatment services. It offers diagnostics to evaluate speech and language disorders or differences, and individualized therapy sessions are scheduled to meet individual needs. The clinic's self-referral system ensures access to care, and its fees are nominal, with financial support available for those in need.

The ODU Speech and Hearing Clinic encompasses more than just treatment. It provides support and community to those who need it most. With its rich history and unwavering commitment to transforming lives, this gem on Old Dominion University's campus is a testament to the power of compassionate care.

Learn more about the Speech & Hearing Clinic.

IN THE IMAGE ABOVE: Chila Nicholson, Senior Lecturer and Clinic Coordinator, greets a patient.