Rachel Steichen admits she was kicking herself.

The White Lake mother was wondering about her son, Orion, and his speech pattern. For a 4-year-old, his speech has developed well for his age. But he speaks quickly.

“We have been questioning his speech for a long time and we’ve always thought we should wait and see,” she said. “And I feel that the sooner you can get at the problem, the better. And he’s to the point where now, when people can’t understand him, he gets frustrated.”

For the last two months, the Steichens have come to Avera Therapy in Mitchell to help Orion improve his skills. And they’re seeing results.

It’s emblematic of what Avera Therapy and its recent partnership with the Scottish Rite Foundation of South Dakota is capable of in Mitchell, forming an important partnership to help children with speech or language issues at a key developmental age. The support of Scottish Rite helps fund therapy for individuals who might not be able to afford it or cover what insurance will not.

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“It’s extremely helpful. My insurance would not cover speech therapy for him at all,” Steichen said. “So it was a matter of coming up with how to pay for it out of pocket or he doesn’t get it. When they approached me about the Scottish Rite, I was extremely grateful.”

Avera Therapy and Scottish Rite Masons of South Dakota are sponsoring an upcoming free speech and language screening event for children ages 4 to 7. The event will be held Tuesday, May 4 from 5 to 7:30 p.m. at the Avera Therapy Pediatrics location at 200 E. Havens Ave. in Mitchell.

The screenings allow parents and caregivers to know more about their children’s communication strengths and needs. The screenings take fewer than 20 minutes. (Individuals can sign up by calling 605-995-6373.)

The partnership of Avera Health and the Scottish Rite Foundation of South Dakota makes more Mitchell area children eligible for free or reduced-cost speech therapy services. Scottish Rite helps fund services for more than 4,000 South Dakota children annually. (Matt Gade / Republic)
The partnership of Avera Health and the Scottish Rite Foundation of South Dakota makes more Mitchell area children eligible for free or reduced-cost speech therapy services. Scottish Rite helps fund services for more than 4,000 South Dakota children annually. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Scottish Rite’s mission with the clinics is to provide speech and language services to children, including diagnosis, assessment, education and therapy services to children affected by speech and language disorders, without regard for their ability to pay.

Speech therapy services are sometimes considered developmental, which means traditional insurance might not cover it. If a child doesn't improve their communication skills, it can have negative social and educational impacts.

Kendra Abts is a speech language pathologist for Avera in Mitchell and has worked at the site since the start of 2020. In her job, she focuses on language articulation, fluency and stuttering. During the screening sessions with parents and children, she was the focus will be on articulation and fluency, running tests that have children look at pictures and words and follow directions and look for possible speech impediments.

“We’re just listening for their communication and seeing if they’re forming words fully, forming sentences,” Abts said of the screenings. “It will give parents more information about whether they need more evaluation. We’re trying to reach the children who are eligible and would really benefit from these services and the Scottish Rite’s assistance.”

The screenings are important, she said, because as summer approaches and children leave services they might have in the school system, that sometimes provides a window where therapy progress can lapse. To combat that, Avera offers summer services to supplement that development.

Abts typically meets with a child once a week for 30 to 45 minutes. She said the involvement of parents who help reinforce what’s learned at therapy while they’re at home makes for a “team effort” that helps children improve their skills.

“Once a week isn’t going to change everything, so having parents at home that are willing to help their children improve and drive home what we’re working on makes a huge difference,” she said.

Abts said she tries to keep things light with the children who come for therapy, playing games and using toys.

“We work on the words and then we take a break and we play basketball at the little hoop in my room. We’re not just drilling word after word. We try to have fun.”

Four-year-old Orion Steichen walks the alphabet on the floor after working with speech pathologist Kendra Abts during an appointment Wednesday, April 28, 2021 at Avera Therapy in Mitchell. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Four-year-old Orion Steichen walks the alphabet on the floor after working with speech pathologist Kendra Abts during an appointment Wednesday, April 28, 2021 at Avera Therapy in Mitchell. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Spreading their services

Denny Robinson, of Mitchell, is secretary and treasurer of the Scottish Rite Foundation of South Dakota. He said he was having discussions with some local individuals in 2018 about how to expand Scottish Rite services in other parts of the state. The partnership was announced in late 2019.

“It is one of our main missions of our organization,” he said. “We can help and we wanted to support expanding those services in any way we could.”

Scottish Rite works with the University of South Dakota in Sioux Falls and Vermillion, Lifescape in Rapid City and Avera in Aberdeen. Until the Avera partnership in Mitchell, there was a large hole in Scottish Rite assistance locations in the center of the state.

“That’s one of the things that led to this,” Robinson said. “We wanted to make sure our outreach was getting to the places where we really think we can help make a difference.”

Scottish Rite provided about $190,000 in funding and support for various clinics and programs, according to the nonprofit organization’s federal tax return in 2019, the most recent year available. Its contribution to the Mitchell clinic was $20,000, which helped get the program started, and ongoing financial donations are expected to cover operational expenses and programming.

The foundation also provides fellowship funds to graduate students at the University of South Dakota who are studying communications sciences and disorders and will be working with children.

In all, 4,400 children in South Dakota benefitted from Scottish Rite programs in 2020, Robinson said, noting that was in spite of battling COVID-19 throughout the year.

Robinson said that hopefully when things return to normal following COVID-19, the Mitchell site will be able to do outreach to area communities, particularly to the south and west.

“We’re looking forward to reaching those surrounding communities,” Robinson said.

Abts acknowledges the importance of the clinic to the outlying parts of the region. She said she knows some people who travel from Chamberlain to Sioux Falls for treatment and Mitchell provides another option closer to home. She said there’s capacity to help more kids, with about 25 children currently receiving speech therapy at the Mitchell location.

“If anyone needs the clinic, needs the Scottish Rite, we’re here,” she said. “It’s a great service to have.”