Helen Mirren Helps Empower Children Who Stutter

Gordon Cox
Variety

Imagine it: You’re standing in front of 850 people, and you can’t get your words out. The moment might provoke awkwardness or discomfort in a lot of audiences, but not the one that gathers together every year in support of SAY, the Stuttering Assn. for the Young.

“There’s something very magical about an audience full of people just sitting, without any embarrassment, and waiting for the person onstage to say what they have to say,” says Helen Mirren of the annual gala. “It’s beautiful.”

Warwick Saint for Variety

Mirren got involved with SAY after learning about the New York-based nonprofit from Broadway actress Kelli O’Hara. The two knew each other from the theater scene — they both won Tony Awards in 2015 — and O’Hara invited Mirren and her husband, director Taylor Hackford, to the organization’s fundraising gala. “I absolutely was blown away by it,” Mirren recalls.

SAY runs after-school and weekend programs, as well as speech therapy, for young people who stutter. But its fastest-growing initiative is Camp SAY, the annual two-week sleep-away retreat for 8- to 18-year-olds. Drawing some 125 participants to its North Carolina facility, the camp offers traditional summer activities, as well as programs aimed at empowering young people who stutter.

“It’s about making a space to be who you are, and be free and be accepted,” Mirren says.

With a full-time staff of just eight, SAY sustains itself through funds raised by the gala as well as by annual bowling nights hosted by board member Paul Rudd (in New York) and Houston Astros player George Springer (in Houston). That money also helps bolster a financial-aid fund that allows kids from all socioeconomic backgrounds to attend the camp. No child has ever been turned away from the camp because a family can’t afford it.

Despite a busy acting schedule that includes upcoming tentpole film “Fast 8” and “Collateral Beauty,” the December Warner Bros. release in which she plays a woman who is the personification of Death, Mirren supports not only SAY but a wide range of other charitable organizations, including international body Oxfam and the U.K.’s Refuge. As she notes, “It is a responsibility.”

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