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06.08.11

A Star-Studded Gala for Stuttering

Emily Blunt, Joe Biden, and Colin Firth all appeared for an annual benefit to help the American Institute for Stuttering last night. Andrew Carter on the wildly successful evening.

The eloquent speakers at a star-studded gala in New York City last night were not always so comfortable speaking in front of a crowd. Emily Blunt and Joe Biden, among others, had nearly debilitating stutters they overcame. So they helped to bring together people for the American Institute for Stuttering’s fifth annual “Freeing Voices, Changing Lives” benefit gala.

Blunt, the mistress of ceremonies, received what she called the “sort of stuttering award” at the organization’s gala two years ago, around the same time she became a board member. Tina Brown, editor-in-chief of the Newsweek Daily Beast Company is also a board member. Her husband, Harold Evans, presented one of two awards at the Tribeca RoofTop.

The cause is one that hits close to home for most of last night's attendees. “People who stutter are often embarrassed and live in the shadows with it. But they need to see that there is opportunity out there,” Blunt told The Daily Beast. She cited Bruce Willis and Harvey Keitel as additional examples of stutterers who overcame it and made their way as actors.

Stuttering affects more than 3 million people in the United States and 60 million worldwide, according to AIS, a nonprofit organization that offers treatment to people who stutter, and support to their families.

Famous faces like Blunt, Sam Waterston, Matt Damon, and John Krasinski attended the event, and video appearances by Vice President  Biden and Colin Firth, star of The King’s Speech, illustrated what a diverse support group the organization has and how many different people’s lives have been affected by stuttering.

Emily Blunt received what she called the “sort of stuttering award” two years ago.

Michael Sheehan, a member of the board of directors and himself a 2010 honoree, echoed Blunt’s sentiment, saying that while he was growing up, “the only stutterer I knew was Porky Pig.” He added that the organization shows young people that  “you are not alone; you don’t have to be isolated.”

The institute honored Arthur Blank, the cofounder of Home Depot and owner of the Atlanta Falcons, and Oscar winner Firth with leadership awards at the event.

Blank, whose family foundation has given more than $250 million to various groups, also overcame stuttering. His struggle was cited as being  “exemplary and indicative of someone who found his voice and used it to effect change in the world.” In a poignant moment, Blank was introduced to a Home Depot employee, Matt Austin, whose life had been changed during his job interview. When he learned about Blank’s stutter, he thought, “If he can do it, so can I.” Now a store manager at the age of 28, he calls Blank “my savior.”

Firth was honored for his portrayal of George VI, the king who overcame his stutter to lead Britain through World War II. His characterization helped the stuttering community raise its profile. In a video appearance, Firth said that the role “transformed my life.” and “people who stutter have become my heroes.”

In a change from previous years, the award presentations were separated by a Live Auction, which Blunt jokingly said was done “to guarantee that you stay and give us your money.” This tactic seems to have worked, as the auction raised well over $115,000 to support the institute’s scholarship program. It has provided more than 350 scholarships over the years to support those who cannot otherwise afford the institute’s services.

There are apparently only two organizations doing this kind of work in a significant way, said Waterston, who has been involved with the organization for the past five years. “It takes a lot of courage to overcome stuttering, but those who do are better for it. These are caring allies for people who have the guts to deal with it,” he told The Daily Beast.

Eric Dinallo, a board member, who grew up with a stutter and whose own son started going to the institute to treat his stutter at about 3 years old, told The Daily Beast that while young children can be taught fluency at a young age, “adult stutterers face a different set of challenges. They have to manage it into a different set of therapeutic outcomes.” He adds that AIS “knows there are two levels of approach to this” and has different therapies for children and adults. An event like this, he said, shows “there are people who can help…they aren’t alone, they shouldn’t be ashamed.”

But Rachel Fine, whose father, brother, nephew, and son all stutter, best summed up the benefits the organization. “It was a fantastic night, very motivating. I feel I will be able to help my son a lot more as a result of coming here and listening to these speakers.”