I’ve been thinking a lot about opportunities to develop a strong self concept.

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Since September of 2014, I have been a volunteer mentor and club coach for the Durham Rescue Mission Toastmasters Club during two lunch breaks and two evenings a month.

At the very first meeting, I gave an evaluation of an ice-breaker (first) speech –and found renewed purpose! The speech was a heart wrenching tale of a shattered childhood, unsuccessful school experience, military service, lack of support after leaving the military, some bad decisions, failed relationships –and a new resolve to start over. I started my evaluation by saying, “Thank you for your service!” He held his head up and sat a little taller in his seat. I pointed out three things he had done particularly well; speaking without notes, speaking from the heart, and drawing us in with an engaging story. By then, he was beaming. Then I made one suggestion to engage more of the audience by moving around a bit. The look on his face was priceless. I had the feeling it was the first time he had ever received positive feedback from a teacher or boss or evaluator –in his life! It was that look on his face that sealed the deal for me. I was hooked on the Durham Rescue Mission Toastmasters Club at my first meeting.

In the year and half since that first meeting, I have heard countless similar tragic stories of lost opportunities, costly lapses of judgement and battles with depression and mental illness. I have gotten that same expression of elation and stunned disbelief in return for my constructive comments–over and over again. I keep going back because I am inspired by human resilience at every meeting and because the impact of my small effort is so immediate and heartwarming. I watch confidence grow and leadership skills develop. My heart cheers when I see the men improve.

From the beginning, our goal was to empower residents to take steps toward improving themselves and their career opportunities through the arts of public speaking and meeting leadership. I realized immediately how similar this was to the vision of Ralph Smedley who founded Toastmasters in a California YMCA in the early part of the 20th century.  His mission was to help young men improve their career prospects by teaching them to make better toasts at business luncheons. This was the one recognized way to assure career advancement in that era. Society has changed since then and so has Toastmasters! We seldom are called upon to give a toast at a business meeting these days, but a firm handshake and a clear response to an interview question are still valued skills.

Although we struggled unsuccessfully for some months to build a consistent evening meeting attendance, membership and enthusiasm gained traction after we began meeting as part of the Tuesday morning “Victory Class.” In this class, men learn to apply Biblical principles to their lives. Toastmasters became the second half of the class twice a month. One of my most memorable speaker evaluations happened in this class. A fellow named James Davis told a story about his life, delivering it with power and drama and lots of voice inflection. He ended by saying, “Here I am, 50 years old with no marketable skills.”

I was assigned as his evaluator that day. As an “icebreaker” speech, James had just delivered one of the best I had ever heard. He had a clear point and a logical progression to his story and his delivery contained a lot of the enhancements other beginning members struggle to implement such as vocal variety and appropriate hand gestures. I opened by saying, “Make no mistake. You sir, have a marketable skill!”

Several weeks later, I offered James a ride to a Toastmasters Competition in Charlotte. I think that was where the magic hit him. While watching those competitors, a fire lit in him and James saw something of his own life purpose. From that moment on, James Davis became the driving force for the Durham Rescue Mission Toastmasters Club, often assuming the role of Toastmaster (Master of ceremonies) at club meetings, encouraging new members to join while also working his way through the ten speech projects of the Competent Communicator Manual. It wasn’t long before he was elected Club President and led the club to charter!

Chartering was in important step.  Without a charter the men were not eligible to receive educational awards for their accomplishments or compete in speech contests. James has now completed his Competent Communicator award. And, two men, James Davis and Chaplain Lynn Holloway recently competed in an area speech contest!

For me, the experience has been nothing short of astounding. As Jeb Sturmer, another club mentor and a member of Duke Toastmasters Club has often said, “The men start at a very high level. They are all able to tell a story with a clear beginning, middle and end, make a point and do it all without using notes!” But to progress beyond that point, to get to the level of competition speaking, like all accomplished speakers, they need mentoring.

Because the men are residents at the Rescue Mission, there are also a few hurdles this club faces that other clubs don’t. For one thing, the membership is fairly fluid, with new members joining and others leaving the group when they find work and move on. The other challenge is membership fees. Although members are encouraged to contribute to their own membership fee when they are able, most of the membership and chartering fees have been raised through donations. And that need will continue as long as the club exists. The Durham Rescue Mission has set up a special fund for the ongoing support of the toastmasters clubs and all donations clearly marked for that purpose will be deposited to that fund.

“To me, the most exciting thing has been watching men find their voice and then realize that their story of struggle has the power to lift up the brothers coming up behind them and give them hope.”

To continue, this very special club needs community support. Beyond financial support, we need a community to serve as a club core. These members would not only provide stability to this club designed to serve a transient population, but also much needed role modeling and mentoring. If you have been thinking of joining a toastmasters club, please consider the Durham Rescue Mission Toastmasters Club as your new home club! If you are already a Toastmasters Club member in the Durham, NC area, joining us as your second club will also help you to advance in speaker and leadership goals more quickly!

Meetings are held on the First and Third Monday at 6:30 pm in the second floor Victory Classroom of the Durham Rescue Mission.

The men at the Rescue Mission face many obstacles. A community who believes in them and is willing to help bring out the best in them is just the beginning of great things to come. I hope you will consider joining us in this very rewarding leadership opportunity.

Mailing Address
P.O. Box 11858
Durham, NC 27703

Visit us in the Victory Classroom 2nd floor 
Center for Hope and Healing
1201 East Main St.
Durham, NC 27701

1st and 3rd Mondays at 6:30 pm
2nd and 4th Tuesday at 11:00 am