Joining Toastmasters has been an amazing journey for me especially as I have been able to introduce it into a Men’s Refuge. I had been running personal development courses on Anxiety Management, Confidence building and Anger Management and then decided to try something different! The men had been on all sorts of journey’s including alcohol, drug abuse and prison but one thing they all had in common was a hunger to move on and change their present circumstances.
So I asked the group if they would like me to bring some toastmaster friends along one evening and entertain them. They seemed intrigued and pleased to have an evening arranged just for them. The refuge provided refreshments and five other toastmasters from two different clubs joined us for what I can only describe as a totally surprising event.
On arrival I was pleasantly surprised to see a good attendance waiting for us in the lounge, which had been arranged with seating in a semi-circle to keep an informal atmosphere. Initially it was a bit difficult to get started because of the comings and goings of the residents, something I had become used to in my classes but was now proving a bit more challenging. However we did get started and gradually the men engaged and interacted with the programme that had been arranged for them.
I certainly didn’t want to swamp them with all the formalities that can be daunting for any newcomer to the club but they seemed to enjoy the way we conducted their first experience. When it was time for table topics my fellow members and myself were very pleasantly surprised when not only did we have several volunteers but also one of the men’s 10 year old daughter who had come along also offered to ‘have a go’.
By the end of the evening it was evident that the residents had enjoyed themselves and as the manager told me later ‘The fact they came back after the break is evidence of that’. My colleagues and myself had certainly experienced an evening with a difference and it didn’t end there……………….
We told the residents that they would always be welcome to come along to our club in Norwich to experience a real toastmasters evening, although I don’t suppose I really expected them to come. So I was delighted when two of them turned up at the next meeting! They sat at the back and then to my surprise one of them volunteered to do a table topic. The title he chose couldn’t have been more suited to him, ‘What have you done today that you couldn’t do yesterday?’ He looked straight at the audience and smiled his cheeky grin ‘Well, this.’ ‘I would never have done this, if I hadn’t been doing the courses with Anita.’ I was so proud of him as we all knew how much courage it takes to get up the front and speak, especially for the first time.
Back at the refuge I asked the men if they would like toastmaster meetings to be held monthly and there was a unanimous ‘yes’.
We’ve just had our second meeting and I have to say it blew my toastmaster friends and myself away! Seven of us from the Norwich club attended and seven residents plus one staff. Already the numbers had grown.
Having spent more time on the courses with them from the initial meeting I had encouraged them to have a go at some of the toastmaster duties which they seemed happy to do. In our training sessions they decided on the theme for the evening ‘Aspirations and Failures’. The group also agreed on the table topic titles with the theme in mind and one of them even volunteered to be Table topic master. Another volunteered to be the Grammarian with ‘Congeniality’ as the word for the evening. An invocation (thought for the night) would be done by another and one more also offered to have a go at writing a speech. I was thrilled at the way these guys embraced the whole idea and sincerely hoped they could sustain their enthusiasm.
When the evening arrived my toastmaster colleagues dutifully arrived on time and once again I felt challenged by the initial poor attendance.
However after waiting about 10 minutes with only two men present I decided to get things started and hope for the best. The toastmaster members, being well polished were very happy to conduct their roles ready for change if necessary. Within minutes of starting one by one the men appeared and settled into watching and began to take part with their duties. Our Table Topic master was definitely feeling empowered by his role and had a wonderful way of encouraging the audience to take part. Matt, one of the Norwich members entertained us all with some of his personally written humorous poetry, a talent which he has certainly nurtured and it was received really well.
During the break we were treated to refreshments supplied by the Centre and it was also a wonderful opportunity for the members and residents to socialise.
After the break something happened that opened our eyes and hearts in a way that I think we will all remember for ever……………………..
One of the residents was going to do an invocation and went to get a book from his room. Once back he went to perch on the table at the front with book in hand but instead of opening it as we expected he started to talk to us and placed the book on the table beside him. He opened up and shared the most intimate parts of his horrendous childhood and what it had meant and done to him. At first I felt a bit concerned but then realised this was absolutely meant and I didn’t need to do anything, just listen with everyone else. He spoke for at least 10 minutes ending with tears running down his face. He apologised but was quickly reassured by a younger member of his residence who then went on to quote something I had previously said to them in class ‘Only strong men cry in public.’ I had been relaying an experience I had when I heard a young man dare to reveal in a room of 50 how he felt after being involved in an emergency disaster. We recognised that as a strength not a weakness as some tried to do. The man who told his story decided to leave the room and one of the other residents followed to check he was ok.
What was really amazing was how the rest of the residents that were present in that room opened up too. They not only carried out their duties with enthusiasm but also spoke out personally and my toastmaster friends and myself were truly touched by the way they shared and pushed their comfort zones way beyond any of our expectations.
Having seen them since I realise that these men have one major thing in common and that’s to move forward. They may not know how or even where they want to go but what they do know is that to feel valued and not judged helps them to grow and that is what happens at our meetings at Toastmasters in Norwich. Every meeting we witness personal growth and these men are hungry for exactly the same thing as the young men were back in 1924 when Ralph Smedley started the whole Toastmaster movement, with his aim being to help young men gain confidence and self-esteem.
It has been a privilege for me to work with these men at Dibden Rd and I will continue to be touched and excited by their progress however long it takes. Tomorrow I start a new course with them ‘Finding Your Voice’ and I look forward to watching them gain more confidence and skills in their public speaking skills.
By Anita Martin