Countless scholars have spoken or written books on the connections between heart, struggle, creativity and innovation, but Little Rock speech language pathologists Natalie Huggins and Kelly Truby are leading the local charge on it for kids with special needs. But not by walking the walk, they’re driving the bus.
For more than 17 years, both Huggins and Truby have helped children and adults who have trouble communicating find their voice, navigating the complexities of articulation delays, receptive and expressive language, apraxia, augmented and alternative communications, autism, oral motor delays and diagnostic evaluations.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, their once face-to-face occupations became impossible thanks to social distancing and masks. As contract speech therapists, Huggins and Truby are employed through a company that works in schools, and when schools closed, their operations went virtual.
The process of virtual speech therapy proved to be very difficult. In addition to trying to help a child from miles away do something that often works better with hands-on play or imitation, the therapists had developed relationships with their clients, and they genuinely missed being able to see them in person.
“It was just kind of heartbreaking to see them struggling with the shutdown in COVID,” Huggins says. “There were several of our kids on our caseloads who we couldn’t get ahold of. There would be days where they would show up for therapy and you could just tell it was a very hard day.”
Many days ended with Huggins and Truby venting their frustrations to one another, wishing to see students face to face and check in on them. At one point, Huggins was tempted to throw some materials in the back of her SUV and park in front of her clients’ houses.
“‘How cool would that be, to just park out in front of their house? We can sit apart for social distancing, but then I could, like, see them and make sure they’re OK,’” she had mused. “And then came the idea: ‘Oh my gosh, a mobile therapy bus would be so cool!’”
THE WHEELS OF INNOVATION
The goal of Chatterbus is to reach as many children as possible with their mobile therapy services, whether in central Arkansas or anywhere in the state. Huggins says reaching underserved communities who don’t have a lot of access to these types of services is top of mind.
“When we go and do evaluations, we’re seeing all these kids who don’t have access to resources, don’t have therapy, don’t get early intervention, and they’re so far behind,” Huggins says. “We thought, ‘How cool would it be to have a bus and be able to go see those kids or service those kids and bring joy?’ You know, bring a bus full of fun things that would make therapy fun.”
Truby admits she was way out of her element when the duo decided to look for a bus to buy. The pair searched on Facebook Marketplace and were surprised to learn that there are more buses available for purchase than they thought, and that they sell fast.
But after a year, in Haskell, Arkansas, the stars aligned and they found the perfect decommissioned city transportation bus.
“And then we freaked out,” Huggins laughs, “and were like, ‘OK, we actually bought a bus. Now what?’”
They worked with a friend of a friend who was an alumni of Central High School to create the Chatterbus logo, which led to the design and wrapping of the outside of the bus. Ideas from Pinterest led to finding a kindred spirit in Iowa who was also developing her own mobile therapy bus, the only other one they know of in the country. The demolition and renovation of the inside was a labor of love for Huggins and her husband, while Truby’s cousin laid the flooring.
“I love our story because of all of the people who have helped us with the bus. It’s been such a journey for us,” Truby says. “This is our happy place. It doesn’t feel like work.”
NAVIGATING THE FAST LANE
Chatterbus started with language groups that met around a different theme each month.
“Natalie and I go crazy because this is what we love,” Truby says. “Give us a theme and we’re going to take it to the extreme.”
In the winter, one theme was hot cocoa. The bus parked at a donut shop and the kids got to drink hot cocoa, read a book about hot cocoa and do a craft about hot cocoa. There have been snowballs, seaweed, fall leaves and acorns, candy canes and reindeer games. This past May, there was a garden and flower theme that took place at Hocott’s Garden Center in Hillcrest.
“People see something somewhere and then they reach out to us,” Truby says. “We’ve been able to provide services that parents say there’s a need for.”
Chatterbus recently launched social skills groups because parents were asking for help bringing their kids back up to speed in social situations after the pandemic.
“The need has been more for early intervention and, coming out of COVID, the need for social skills,” Huggins says. “Parents have come to us and expressed interest in the social skills aspect that was lost from their kids being out of school and being held out of interactions for so long, building back up that self-esteem.”
After the social skills group came a girl’s group, and next will be a reading group.
“We’re able to meet kids where they need and parents are telling us what they need from us. We’ll try to do what we can to provide the services for that,” Truby says.
The audiences Chatterbus targets are kids who are interested in preschool language and enrichment programs, or playgroups for ages 2 to 9 and the social skills groups that range from ages 7 to 12.
“We try to tap in on all ages. We don’t want to limit ourselves,” Truby says, already looking to what’s next. “I want the babies on the bus. I’m ready to start a little toddler and baby playgroup on the bus.”
DRIVING OFF INTO THE FUTURE
Both Truby and Huggins are big proponents of early intervention. They say everything they do on the bus — playgroups, programs, therapy or otherwise — is increasing the language skills of the children they serve.
“What started as truly just a speech therapy venture has turned into so much more,” Huggins says.
“When we started this bus,” Truby adds, “I didn’t want it to be limited to ‘your kid qualifies for speech but your kid doesn’t. They can’t come on the bus.’ Because every child benefits from everything we’re doing, whether they’re within normal limits or delayed. … A lot of these kids that we’ve been seeing don’t have language evaluations, but they are growing immensely by coming to these groups and learning the skills that we’ve been able to teach them.”
Over the summer, Chatterbus plans to work with daycares and summer programs in churches and head starts. They piloted this set of programs with a daycare in North Little Rock where the bus parked and opened its doors to every child who attended the school. All children participated and the school didn’t have to find the space for the therapists to do their work. The kids, students and parents loved it, and the idea for this summer camp was born.
“We’ll offer those four or five different groups as well as offering private speech therapy sessions for those who need it. If your child gets therapy in the school, they do not carry that over in the summer,” Truby says. “It’s OK for some kids to take a break, but some kids still need it.”
Chatterbus recognizes that parents need help, too. Ideas on skills to teach and how to play with your child, like taking turns and reading, are some of the things Truby and Huggins want to share.
“Our ultimate goal is to service the underserved around Arkansas, because there is such a need,” Huggins says.
By providing free language screenings in rural areas in the state, Chatterbus hopes to help parents understand their child’s development by identifying skills kids should have by certain ages, so they all can thrive.
“We’re just therapists who want to help kids,” Truby says, “and we have a passion to have fun while we’re doing it.”
Learn more at chatterbusonthego.com.