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Jennie Bjorem: Looking Anew at the Power of Speech and Language

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To have a major impact on their occupational field, whether business, education or sports, many individuals spend years preparing to ensure success. But Overland Park, Kansas, entrepreneur Jennie Bjorem allowed the influence of college friends to guide her into a career that has become a passion and touches special needs children around the world.

“I kind of picked my major of speech pathology because one of my sorority sisters was in it. I didn’t know much about it, and I certainly didn’t know that I couldn’t get a job with just an undergraduate degree; I had to have a master’s. But I got my undergraduate degree at St. Louis University and my master’s in speech-language pathology at Truman State in Kirksville, Missouri.”

Action for Apraxia
Call it fate, the influence of a greater power or simple luck and determination. But Jennie’s move to become a speech language pathologist opened an incredible passion to help others and developed business avenues she never imagined. Her love of empowering children with special needs to say their first words or increase their vocabulary and the resulting joy of parents experiencing their child’s achievement have driven her to the forefront of addressing speech apraxia.

According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, apraxia is a motor speech disorder that makes it difficult for children to speak. In basic communications, messages travel from the brain to the mouth, which tell the muscles how and when to move to make sounds. If a child has apraxia of speech, the messages get muddled. He or she might not be capable of moving lips or tongue to the right spot to say sounds, even though the muscles aren’t weak. Sometimes the child might not be able to say anything at all.

For this wife and mother of three and stepmother to one, the journey to becoming a leader in the speech apraxia world began as a speech pathologist at a local school system. “I was school based in Hickman Mills for three years and had had my first baby. But I wanted more freedom, wanted to know what was out there for a private practice clinician. I decided to offer early intervention services in the home,” Jennie remarked. “The company grew; I hired other speech therapists and had up to 24 SLPs working with me. I worked through Missouri First Steps, Kansas City Regional Center and Infant Toddler Services of Johnson County.”

Growth in Service
Then things changed and the programs Jennie knew and loved didn’t seem to match her long-term goals of helping others. She took another brave step and decided to start all over. “I reinvented my company and took myself into private practice. I acquired a small office in my brother’s and husband’s building and started with one client in late 2013,” she stated. “We have grown from that one small office to a 3,700-square-foot clinic with 27 therapists and preschool instructors.”

Established in 2002, Children’s Therapy Services is located at 7000 West 121st Street in Leawood, Kansas. It provides speech and language therapy; occupational therapy; developmental and behavioral therapy; sensory therapy; social skills instruction; early reading skills; dyslexia intervention; parent education; play therapy; preschool enrichment and summer camp opportunities. Children’s Therapy Services features individualized, family-centered education and intervention services. Over 7,000 families in the KC-metro have been served since it opened.

“I surrounded myself with the best staff with diverse specialized educational backgrounds. We have a solid reputation in the community,” Jennie remarked. “We pride ourselves in delivering the best therapy possible, coming from a team-based approach, to help families solve problems. It’s not just about the child; it’s about the whole family unit. One 45-minute session in our office isn’t going to make a noticeable difference, so the child must have continual work at home, too.”

Further Innovation
Jennie’s drive to deliver even more assistance to children with speech needs, especially those with apraxia, had her dreaming for different ways to help them. She pulled together processes she was already using, combined them with her knowledge and experience in speech pathology, and hit upon an idea that is revolutionizing how children with apraxia can be helped. It’s an intuitive product for families and therapists called Bjorem Speech Sound Cues.

“Speech Sound Cues are evidence-based picture cues designed to help young children acquire, use and combine sounds by giving each sound a meaning that makes sense and is developmentally appropriate,” she stated. “Multi-sensory experiences are an important part of children acquiring new skills and visuals are just one of those tools. Children love the colorful child-friendly characters depicted in the cue set.” Jennie says with 22 consonant picture cues and 12 vowel cues in the set, children quickly pick up the visual prompts because they can relate to the picture, many of which are environmental sounds.

While Jennie believed she and her team, consisting of Claire Selin, doctoral student in speech pathology, and Ruthie Ozonoff, graphic artist, had developed an amazing, new tool for therapists to use with children as young as 18 months old, the old-school business of delivering support wasn’t so open to her creativity.

Jennie saw Bjorem Speech Sound Cues as a complete product that therapists would order and immediately use. After more than five months of creating the artwork, she was ready to see her product to fruition. For over a year and a half, she struggled to produce her work. The publishers wanted her to offer the work in the way that therapeutic tools had always been offered. Traditionally, a book would be published and then therapists would copy the pages on a printer, cut out the shapes and then laminate them. Jennie saw that as a laborious process, cutting into time that should be shared with the children. She was having none of it. “I’m kind of stubborn. If I have a vision, it will happen,” she shared. “The road I take might be more difficult, but I’ll get it done.”

The Road Less Traveled
To navigate that rocky path, Jennie called on her network for support. Her husband works for a distribution company, and he got her connected into his system. Then she made contacts in the publishing world. After months of fortitude, her roller coaster experience soon came to completion. In December 2017, she had her Speech Sound Cues complete and ready for order on her website.

But then something happened she didn’t anticipate.

She immediately sold out.

However, given that Jennie had just built her own publishing process, stock was quickly replenished.

“We’re selling all over the country and the world: Ireland, Brazil, China, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Great Britain. The sales are from social media or word of mouth,” she enthused. “I estimate about 350 SLPs are using the cards on a regular basis around the world.”

Making a Difference
The success has been impressive, but Jennie is quick to add that she’s not in it for money but for the opportunity to help others in need. “When a parent cries and thanks me and says that I’ve made a huge difference in their lives; or they make me chicken noodle soup when I’m sick; or a child runs into my arms, excited to be in class, it’s so wonderful,” Jennie commented. “Speech and language are so powerful, and it’s heartbreaking when it isn’t there for a family.”

A New Voice
The future looks bright for Jennie. Speaking invitations are coming in, an opportunity to further share her knowledge with others. She talks of hosting an intensive program over the summer months for addressing apraxia in children. And of course, she has the success of her Speech Sound Cues as the crowning achievement.

For others contemplating a path of building their own company, Jennie offers these pearls of wisdom. “I recommend you find a mentor. Somebody to talk to, work with, be supportive of you. Then dig in, and don’t let anyone tell you no,” she noted. “And, love what you do. I can’t wait to see my families, and they love to see me. Also, I try to surround myself with supportive and driven people, especially my husband, and I definitely try to do something for myself. The curse of being an entrepreneur is that your brain doesn’t stop. In fact, I keep a journal on the nightstand and write down things that come to me in my dreams so I can get back to sleep.”

For a woman who blindly followed a sorority sister into her career field, Jennie Bjorem has her eyes set on the prize: continuing to build impactful achievements and increasing her passion for helping children. “This is a great place for families to go when they have kids with special needs,” she shared. “Parents need direction and help. And I’m there for them.”