Andrew Dys

After decades helping kids who needed her, speech therapist to close office doors

Joanne Lehman, left, Carole Tiedeman, bottom, Flora Baker and Clare Sturkey, right, will be closing their practice at Alliance Diagnostic and Treatment Center in Rock Hill.
Joanne Lehman, left, Carole Tiedeman, bottom, Flora Baker and Clare Sturkey, right, will be closing their practice at Alliance Diagnostic and Treatment Center in Rock Hill.

No-nonsense speech therapist Clare Sturkey, at 68 years old, pulls no punches.

"A crapshoot," Sturkey said of success in 46 years on the job. Years she's countlessly told parents and little kids, "This is going nowhere fast" and "crying won't get you out my front door."

And "great job."

But at the end of the month, she's closing the doors on Alliance Diagnostic & Treatment Center in Rock Hill. The other self-described "mature ladies" who work with her are going off into the therapy sunset, too, unsure where or if they will practice.

There's Carole Tiedeman at 65, 35-plus years as a physical therapist. Joanne Lehman, 53, three decades as an occupational therapist. And the office manager/unofficial grandmother, Flora Baker, who at 75 has held more than 3,000 York County children in her arms or on her lap at the office. She has whispered to those who had cerebral palsy or autism or developmental delays: "You can do it."

Sturkey, who founded Alliance in 1991 and brought in the others after all four had worked together at Winthrop University, is closing because she's "just getting tired."

Therapists aren't doctors, but they do the grunt work after a doctor finds out what is wrong with a child under 6 years old. If the goal is writing, Lehman is the answer. Tiedeman comes to the rescue for motor skills. For language problems, or just a dose of reality when parents and kids -- even special needs kids -- need straight talk, Sturkey gives that out in double doses.

Some kids need two of them for treatment, or all three.

The therapists work and laugh, demand and reward, and the kids go on to school after a year or two. Decades later, parents tap them on a shoulder and say thanks.

The gray and blonde-haired ladies are a testament to why older people must not be tossed into the work force trash heap like old computers. There is little doubt young professionals have the latest technology and methods. Most probably have sparkling offices.

Nobody else has a Sturkey.

"I doubt there is another practice older than us," Sturkey said. "Here. Anywhere."

"With our experience as parents, even grandparents, we have seen a little more," understated Tiedeman.

Alliance decor at the Ebenezer Road office is wood paneling and rooms so cluttered a machete would help to carve a path. The Alliance way is to help the whole family. Help the child with the therapy, help the parents deal with the child and themselves.

Children with these special needs cannot be cured, the three therapists said. The kids can be treated, though. Each can be helped, cajoled, coddled.

"Marvelous turnarounds, one step at a time," is how Lehman described her life's work.

Sturkey knows the goals of parents of these children.

"To hear the word 'Momma' is the biggest deal of all," Sturkey said.

Sturkey gave plenty of 'mommas.'

Baker, who has seen enough of the world in 75 years to know what works and what doesn't, put it this way: "Tears the first day here, then tears of joy when they leave."

So now the ladies with 10 children among them and more than that number of grandchildren are almost done helping somebody else's kids. There are other private clinics in the area, and public schools all have therapists. Little kids with autism or hearing problems, or those who just won't speak, won't go without treatment.

But parents won't get the place with the wood paneling and the grannies whose office looks like somebody's overfilled closet. Where therapy is paid for out of pockets or by insurance or Medicaid, but the love came for free.