While it’s scary to introduce yourself to strangers on the street, it’s doubly so when you stutter.
Just ask Ken Bevers. He does it all the time.
“EHHX-cuse me, guys,” the accountant says in a breathy voice, gaining the attention of three young women walking toward him on the Country Club Plaza. “I ssssstutter, and I’ve been through a program. Could I practice saying my name?”
The women glance at one another, then shrug.
Sure, they say.
Bevers extends his hand, being sure to make eye contact. He pauses briefly before forcing out his name on a cushion of air.
“Ken Bevers,” he says, in an exaggeratedly low voice. “Wuh-what’s your name?”
“Faith,” the woman says with a supportive nod.
The 26-year old with the buzz-cut brown hair repeats the handshake with the other two women, then smiles.
“Thhhank you so much,” he says. “I really appreciate it.”
Bevers is no stranger to strangers. The Merriam man forces himself to talk to them to ease his fear of public speaking. In the last three years he has introduced himself to countless people on the Plaza, in department stores and on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., where he once gave an impromptu speech to 50 people. His girlfriend films his encounters so he can post them on his Facebook page.
It’s part of the training he received in a little-known stuttering course called the McGuire Program that he says changed his life.
It’s an intensive, three-day boot camp that focuses on breathing techniques similar to those of opera singers using the upper diaphragm. It recommends voluntary stuttering (to ease the pressure of trying to be perfect), concentration and positive thinking. And it insists that participants introduce themselves to hundreds of people to master the “sport of speaking.”
At $1,750, the course is not cheap, but many half-price scholarships are available.
On the Plaza, Bevers continues introducing himself to strangers.
“Excuse me,” he says to a man and his wife. “I ssssstutter.”
“Yeah,” says Robert Pierce of Albuquerque. “I used to.”
“And I’m trying to WOR-k over over my over my fear of talking.”
“Oh, very nice.”
“May I practice on you?”
“Yes. Definitely. And you know what? You picked the perfect person, because I stuttered and stammered when I was small. I almost couldn’t speak at all.”
“And you got through it,” Bevers said. “That’s awesome.”
He extends his hand.
“Ken Bevers,” he says.
“I’m Robert, and this is my wife, Liza. Nice to meet you.”
“Thank you so much for stopping. I appreciate it.”
“Yeah. Definitely. And you’re doing good!”
Growing up in Oceanside, Calif., Bevers had a only a mild stutter. When he was 16, his father retired from the Marines and moved the family to Lincoln, Neb., near his parents’ hometown of Sioux Falls, S.D.
After high school he enrolled at Rockhurst University. That’s when his stutter began to worsen. He developed what’s known in stuttering circles as a block. He’d open his mouth but couldn’t start speaking.
He worked with a speech language pathologist for about a year and a half. It helped for a while, enough for him to become president of his fraternity his junior year. But as his problem grew more severe, the therapy helped only in limited situations.
Finally, he experienced his lowest point. One day, during fraternity recruitment he was supposed to say, “My name is Ken Bevers. I’m with Alpha Delta Gamma. Thank you guys for being here. I look forward to meeting you.”
“I was sweating bullets,” he remembers. “In my mind I was imagining every scenario that could happen. And every scenario that I imagined felt like death.”
He prayed the words would come out right. Instead, he opened his mouth — and froze. After an embarrassingly long delay, three words finally tumbled out.
“Annnnd I’m Ken,” he said in a labored voice.
“It was the most awkward thing I’ve ever done,” he says. “And I didn’t attempt (to say) anything else. I just gave up. From there I thought, ‘I need to do something different, cause this isn’t working.’”
Fast forward through a few years of self-help seminars, fluency shaping, counseling and trying to not care. He knew if he replaced words that gave him trouble, or chose not to speak in certain situations, he could muddle through. But that was no kind of life. For years he lived with shame, guilt, fear and loneliness.
More than anything, he felt helpless.
Desperate, he searched for stuttering help online. He found an interview with Gareth Gates, runner-up in the first season of Britain’s “Pop Idol.” Gates, who had a severe stutter, said he found help through the McGuire Program.
Intrigued, Bevers called for more information. He talked with the founder’s wife, then flew to Washington, D.C., to take a course.
To his surprise, the program worked. He began to speak with more confidence and fewer blocks. He loved his experience so much, he became an unpaid coach for the course.
Still many speech language pathologists — including several in the metro area contacted for this story — have never heard of the McGuire Program.
Jane Fraser, president of the Stuttering Foundation of America in Memphis, says any stuttering program not taught by a speech language pathologist will draw skepticism from therapists.
“There is some controversy,” she says. “But one of the things I like to think is if somebody is helped by something, who are we to say it’s no good? Anything that motivates people to work on their speech we think is wonderful. The last thing we’re going to do is criticize someone who has found success.”
Dave McGuire, the 68-year-old founder of the program that bears his name, takes an aggressive approach to conquering stuttering.
“We look at stuttering as our enemy,” he says in an interview from his home in Santa Barbara, Calif. “We’re at war with it. Every waking moment you have to be doing something, talking to people, practicing your breathing.”
Beating stuttering is something you must do every day, he says. He compares it to professional sports, where you have to train day after day to get — and stay — good. One technique: releasing air before speaking. Another: “hit and hold,” putting a hard emphasis on a syllable and holding it longer than usual.
McGuire developed his program in 1994 after meeting an opera singer in the Netherlands the year before. She taught him to breathe using his upper diaphragm, and he found the technique significantly controlled his stuttering.
“For two weeks I thought I was cured,” he said.
Then he relapsed and started stuttering again.
Through determination and constant breathing practice, he learned how to get back that feeling of control.
But his program is more than the physical techniques.
“I combined the psychological and the physical, then added sports psychology and some other things,” he said. “You not only have to put in a lot of work, you have to change your personality.”
The program does not work for everyone, said McGuire, who has a psychology degree from UCLA. And it’s not a cure. But in 2013, the last year he’s tracked, 73 percent of participants saw significant improvement.
Bevers is a believer. His big sister, Amanda Bristol, cries over his success.
“I’m just so proud of him,” she said, wiping away the tears. “My friends … they come up to me and say, ‘I was really scared about doing this one thing, and then I saw what your brother did. He’s amazing.’”
Ken’s girlfriend, Kayla Miller of Olathe, is equally impressed.
“It’s pretty crazy what he does,” she said. “He’s the most determined person I have ever met. And the fact that he does what he does so someone else can be helped? It’s … I can’t think of a big enough word. Inspiring? Baffling? Flabbergasting?”
“Speechless,” said Bevers to peels of laughter.
“Ba-dum, kisshhh!” said a smiling Miller, gesturing toward her boyfriend. “He’s good.”
ABOUT THE PROGRAM
The McGuire Program was developed in 1994 by Dave McGuire of Santa Barbara, Calif., who used the techniques of breathing and practice to overcome his own stutter. The course costs $1,750, but half-price scholarships are available. The fee buys a lifetime membership and permits unlimited refresher courses for a nominal cost.
In the U.S., courses are taught in Washington, D.C. and Las Vegas. The McGuire Program also is found in 14 other countries, including England, Denmark, Sweden, South Africa, Mexico, India, Australia and the United Arab Emerites.
The program assigns each participant a coach after the course and, like Alcoholics Anonymous, relies on an extensive support network.