Justin Blackstone is a Philanthropic Advisor to the Boy Scouts of America National Foundation. A professional philanthropist and speaker, Justin (virtually) sat down with us to share his personal experience with others and serve as an inspiration to the child who stutters.
SFA: Do you remember when you first began to stutter?
JUSTIN: I can’t remember when I started to stutter. I do remember being very young, maybe 5 or 6, and could hardly get a word out.
SFA: Does it run in your family? Who else stutters?
J: My twin brother and I both stuttered at a very young age. It was interesting - he started to stutter first. I only really began stuttering when he got over it and it got progressively worse for me.
SFA: Did you seek treatment? Did it help?
J: My parents took me in for treatment when I was in kindergarten. I got to a point where I couldn’t even get a word out. The treatment helped significantly. I don’t remember too much about it, but it did involve a lot of games. I believe she was just building up my confidence by allowing me to sound out words while having fun.
SFA: Tell us about your experience with stuttering as a child.
J: Stuttering as a child definitely made life a little more difficult, especially in school. Kids in kindergarten referred to me as “the one that talks funny”. I don’t remember too much from my years in elementary school, but I’ll never forget reading out loud. We would do this, what felt like, a thousand times per day, in each class. We would read a story aloud and go up and down the rows so each student could read a paragraph. I dreaded school for this one reason. I usually just tried to go to the bathroom just before my turn, but that wouldn’t always work. Instead, I would have to count my place in line and figure out what paragraph I’d be reading. I then read that to myself as many times as I could before my turn, thinking that would help. It did not. It would take me a few minutes to read what took anybody else a few seconds. I went to a Catholic school and participating in church was a must. Every Wednesday, the entire school, grades K-8 would attend 8:30 mass. Each week, a new class was responsible for the readings, gifts, etc. This typically only happened once a year, but I thought about this moment the entire school year. I tried everything I could to avoid speaking out loud in front of the whole school. Stuttering really just dominated my every thought.
SFA: How did it affect you growing up?
J: Stuttering really affected me in school. I spent so much time trying to avoid participating that my grades took a hit. It consumed too much of my day-to-day. I was too worried about what other people thought. My biggest regret today is letting stuttering get the best of me when I should have been focusing on my education.
SFA: How does stuttering affect you in your career?
J: I wasn’t really thinking things through when I chose a career path, but that’s a good thing. I’m a fundraiser. Essentially, I ask individuals for money. It’s more than that, though. I help people create legacies through philanthropic support. What that really means is I talk… a lot. I chose a career that forces me to talk all day. I do a lot of public speaking, too. It hasn’t affected my career because, I’ve worked hard at it. If I’m confident in myself and what I’m saying, it’s easier. Do I still stutter? Yes, I will stutter the rest of my life, but I no longer let that define me.
SFA: What are the biggest challenges stuttering has presented to you?
J: Stuttering presented lots of challenges, but the biggest challenge was allowing it to consume me. I was never present. I tried to avoid being in situations that would force me to speak, at all costs. If I couldn’t avoid those situations, I would constantly think about what I was going to say. What can I say that’s easy? Can I get away with just saying one word? Can I just nod? It may sound silly to some, but the struggle was very real.
SFA: What is your greatest accomplishment with regard to stuttering?
J: I didn’t let it consume me anymore. My brother lost his battle to cancer back in 2008. That changed me in a lot ways. I no longer sweat the small stuff. I was going to be myself no matter what because, none of us knows how much time we have left. I’m not going to spend what little time we have here worrying about my speaking abilities or what people think of me. Most people would describe me now as laid back and, hopefully, fun. I’m not quiet and reserved anymore. I speak my mind and I get real joy out of spending meaningful time with others. I could never do that before.
I absolutely love making people laugh. So, I got up at an open mic night in Chicago one evening and performed stand-up comedy. It was thrilling. I’ve given lots and lots of speeches and presentations over my short career and I love that, too. I definitely still stutter, but I embrace it and try to learn from it.
SFA: Based upon your experiences, what would you like to tell children who stutter?
J: This doesn’t have to define you. This is just a part of you. You will learn, as you get older, that everybody has a story – everybody struggles. This is your struggle and that’s okay. You’ll have to work at it, but you don’t have to do it alone. Lean on your family and friends. The more you talk to others, the more comfortable you’ll get. Don’t let this prevent you from doing what you want to do. You have lots of reasons to be confident with who you are.
SFA: Based upon your experiences, what would you tell parents of children who stutter?
J: If you have the resources available to get help, do it. Speech therapy helped me immensely. When your child is stuttering, don’t tell them to how to fix it or how to say the word correctly. Help them learn how to fix it. I used to have adults slowly finish the words I was struggling to say. That doesn’t help at all. Just listen and let them finish their thought. Let them do it on their own. I would focus on making sure this isn’t holding them back from being who they are and doing what they want to do. Don’t let it define them.
SFA: What else should we know?
J: My niece, Elsie, stutters. Elsie is nine years old and full of life. She struggles daily with this. I’m excited to help her through this.
GET TO KNOW JUSTIN
Where you are from:
I grew up in Glenwood, IL, in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, IL. I then lived in Chicago for several years before moving a few hours south to Indianapolis, IN.
What do you do:
I’ve been a fundraiser for the past 12 years, focusing on major gifts. I now work as a Philanthropic Advisor for the Boy Scouts of America.
A little bit about your family:
My wife, Kaitlin, and I live in Indianapolis, IN. We met at Loyola University Chicago and lived up there for a while before moving. We now live a little neighborhood called Meridian Kessler. We live here with our little mini-dachshund, Harvey.
I am the youngest of six boys. My brothers live in Chicago and Virginia. My parents still live in the home I grew up in.
What are your hobbies or interests:
I love to stay active. I play a lot of golf, softball and basketball, not so much basketball anymore, though. I run most days, too. Outside of that, my wife, Kaitlin and I love to watch movies and sit outside by the fire.
What are your passions:
This will sound cliché, but I’m passionate about helping others. I’ve been working in the nonprofit industry for over 12 years now because I like giving back.
How have you been successful in your career:
I’ve prided myself on working hard and getting along with others. Best advice I can ever give. My career revolves around me talking. I talk all day. Confidence is key.
From the Winter 2021 Magazine