“A Toast to Toastmasters – Speaking Out for Speaking Up”

“Those who stammer will speak out plainly.”  Isaiah  32:4b  NLT

“Then there was a maiden speech, so inaudible, that it was doubted whether, after all, the young orator really did lose his virginity.”  Benjamin Disraeli

      Back on November 13, 2011 an article was posted in ‘The Chronicles’ that was written by Richard Roy regarding a very positive decision made by the administrative staff here at Oakdale FCI. That decision was to allow inmates to start a prison chapter of ‘Toastmasters’. All who were involved in making that decision should be applauded for supporting a program that has proved to have a positive effect on the lives and the character of those individuals who participate in the program and embrace its mission.

      For those not familiar with ‘Toastmasters International’, it is a worldwide organization of locally chartered ‘clubs’ formed for the purpose of providing an environment in which its members may develop oral communication and leadership skills. In a friendly, supportive atmosphere, members deliver prepared speeches to fellow members of various duration and with different objectives in mind. The speaker is then evaluated in a constructive, positive manner. Members gain confidence developing speaking skills while developing our ability to become better listeners as well.

      Many famous individuals have been Toastmasters through the years including several astronauts – James Lovell, John Young, and Walter Schirra; Chris Matthews of MSNBC’s ‘Hardball’; Former U.S. Senator John Tunney; Debbie Fields Rose, founder of Mrs. Fields Cookies; and Peter Coors, chairman of Coors Brewing Company. For those who are interested, there is a wealth of information about the organization to be found on their website at Toastmasters.org.

      Even though we have met twice a month since Richard’s article, we actually just had our official chartering ceremony on August 1, in the chapel. Members, friends of members and many members of staff, including all three of our Associate Wardens, were present. The Honorable Robert D. Downing, a retired judge who was the driving force behind Toastmasters becoming welcome in the state and federal prison system here in Louisiana, was our guest speaker.

      Richard Roy and Steve Marshall (also a contributor to ‘The Chronicles’) played major roles in the program that was put on to demonstrate what takes place at a typical meeting. Both were excellent, as were the members who had roles as speakers and evaluators, as well as those with minor roles. Our mentors from the ‘street’ were proudly present to help us celebrate becoming officially chartered as the ‘New Beginnings’ Toastmasters club (our official name). Three of them come in regularly, on their own time, to assist, support, and encourage us. Two members of staff that Richard mentioned in the first article, Ms. Papillion and Ms. Smith, were also present at the ceremony. They have been with us week after week where they have seen what the rest of us have seen: Men helping each other become better, helping each other grow, and helping each other reach beyond themselves and overcome their inhibitions and fears.

      Not that it has helped me. I still have major anxiety when I have to get up before the group, even if it is for a small portion of the proceedings. I would have definitely made a better Chief of Staff than President of the United States. But I am working on it, and I couldn’t ask for a more supportive group.

      What amazes me are some of the stories told as men get up and give their first speech to the group, which is called an ‘Icebreaker’. The purpose of this first speech is to get to know the person a little better and to help the individual ease into speaking before the group by talking about a familiar topic – themselves.

      None of us here really has an excuse for the behavior that got us here, but some of these men certainly have REASONS that are far more compelling than any that I could offer. I led a sheltered, privileged existence compared to many of those around me. To think that I squandered more opportunities than many of them have ever had causes me a little embarrassment, but is inspiring as well. I ask God to use my embarrassment to help me be determined to move forward from here and never look back.

      I am proud to be a member of this fine organization, and this very special group of men. Through their courage and determination, I will overcome my fear and I will become a confident public speaker and an individual who is determined to do what I can to help others avoid what we are all going through.

      All of it except Toastmasters, of course.

      I thank all of the people who have supported us and have pledged continued and increased support in the future for this worthwhile program.

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