Name: Shilpa Shamapant, MA, CCC-SLP
Position: President and co-founder of Austin Speech Labs
Hometown: Austin, Texas
Name: Shelley Adair, MS, CCC-SLP
Position: Co-founder of Austin Speech Labs
Hometown: Austin, Texas
When Shilpa Shamapant decided to leave her successful career as a computer engineer to become a speech-language pathologist, it was a conscious move to a field where she felt like she was really helping others. But within the first couple of years working in the hospital setting with people who had suffered strokes, she realized the services she provided there weren't enough for those patients. Relatively new to the health care field, Shamapant saw stroke patients being discharged but still needing more speech-language treatment than their insurance would cover. One particular patient stood out.
"There was this young client, a Harvard-educated engineer in his 40s, who had had a stroke and he needed so much more therapy, but his insurance had run out," Shamapant recalls. "There was no place he could go to affordably get what he needed, and he was so young with so many years ahead of him. It really got to me."
She knew that patients like that man desperately needed more treatment to recover, but when she looked for resources she found nothing available. So, she thought, why don't we start something? She knew exactly whom she wanted to partner with: Shelley Adair, who had been her clinical supervisor during graduate school and with whom she was sharing a job at St. David's Medical Center in Austin, Texas. When Shamapant floated the idea, Adair liked it, but also knew starting something could be risky. Still, Adair, who has been an SLP since 1992 and spent many years working in health care, also wanted to help patients who needed it.
After weeks and then months of discussion and mulling, Shamapant set the wheels in motion and applied for the 501(c)(3) status that would make them a tax-exempt nonprofit organization. With the support of the hospital and other segments of the Austin community, the talking was over and Adair was in. "I knew it was a good idea and it was time to do something," she says.
The pair opened Austin Speech Labs in September 2008 with four clients (including the patient who inspired the idea in the first place). Working out of a space donated by St. David's, Shamapant and Adair developed the "boot camp" system for their clients. Meant to serve as a springboard into further, more self-sustained treatment and progress, the boot camp is eight weeks long, with clients receiving group services for approximately three hours a day, Monday through Friday. With such an intense period of treatment, the goal is for the clients to attain some form of communication. Clients can repeat boot camp until this happens—at the cost of $10 per hour. Upon graduation, clients can enroll in further enriched classes like reading, writing, public speaking and cognitive therapy.
"We knew it was going to take multiple sessions to make some progress, which is why we set the cost so low, but we didn't expect that some of our clients would be coming back for years—we hadn't realized how long of a journey it would be for some people," Adair says. "When I first started working in the field, we gave everyone a year. If they didn't recover by then, that was it—that was as good as it was going to get. But now we are seeing more people in their 20s, 30s and 40s and they aren't OK with that. They want to continue the process and keep going. Now we can let them do that."
And their approach appears to be working. Although there wasn't immediate success across the board, they began seeing incremental improvements with each client and also began appreciating what a long, but crucial journey it could be to reach full potential. Shamapant talks of one client who started with them in 2009 and was not even speaking. Now he is verbal, employed part-time and living independently. The feeling of seeing him gain such independence, she says, is incredible.
"Oh my goodness, to see that kind of difference is so rewarding but it makes you realize what a long process it is for some people," Shamapant says.
Today every boot camp session has approximately 45 clients.Adair runs the morning program; Shilpa runs the afternoon program. Graduate and undergraduate student volunteers help them with clients and with administration. They have moved three times, each time to larger space. They hope to spread their program to more rural parts of Texas and possibly beyond. But for now they have their hands full helping their clients reach their full potential—a charge for which both Shamapant and Adair hold great respect.
"Many of our clients are like onions—once you start to peel them and fix one thing, you begin to see the other layers and see what else they need help with," Shampant says. "It's always interesting and always worthwhile."