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Building Confidence in Their Own Words : The Winners’ Circle Toastmasters Club in Orange gives parolees, the mentally impaired and the homeless a chance to speak their minds<i> .</i>

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Mention Toastmasters International and one usually envisions a group of business people giving speeches over lunch, preparing their deliveries for sales pitches and conventions.

But the Winners’ Circle Toastmasters Club is a little different. Instead of meeting at a restaurant or a plush conference room, Winners’ Circle members gather weekly in a large, converted garage that doubles as a rec room, sitting in folding chairs and on donated couches.

The club is made up of about 20 male and female parolees, as well as the mentally impaired and what psychologist William J. Woolbright, the club’s co-director, refers to as “urban nomads"--the homeless.

Chartered in June, Winners’ Circle is based at Cactus Gardens, a residential employment development home in Orange for male parolees who are preparing to re-enter society. There is no fee charged to the members.

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Many of the members lack the social skills needed to get along with others and make a good impression--especially for job interviews. The members of Winner’s Circle are learning to speak their minds with clarity and courtesy. Mistakes are easily forgiven here; the emphasis is not on what you say or how you say it; you’re applauded by the club just for showing up.

“We need to find options for these people that they wouldn’t ordinarily have,” says Woolbright, who, with his wife, Florence, also serves as director of two residential employment development homes for women in Orange County. “They’re disenfranchised; they’re seeking achievement and recognition. Learning basic public speaking skills builds confidence. It’s an ego boost that helps them when they’re on their own.”

Although the membership is unique and the setting may not be typical for a Toastmasters’ meeting, the format is. The Toastmaster, appointed at the previous meeting, conducts the morning’s discussions, introduces speakers and comes up with the “Table Topics.” In this part of the meeting, the Toastmaster asks each attendee a question, such as “What is the greatest discovery known to man?” or “Should the U.S. police other nations?”

The person being asked must stand and deliver a spontaneous one- to two-minute reply. Afterward, speeches are made by members who have been given a week to prepare, and then the Table Topic responses are judged along with the discourse.

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“It’s all done in a very positive manner,” Woolbright says. “The emphasis is always on providing reinforcement that lets the speakers know their strengths.”

James E. Ray, 43, recently served as the weekly Toastmaster. “I’ve always been a debater, a rebel. I love controversy,” he says.

Ray arrived at Cactus Gardens in April 1993 after serving 1 1/2 years on a marijuana possession conviction. His last four months were spent in the hospital, recovering from surgery and a lung infection.

He says his acceptance at Cactus Gardens turned his life around. “I came here with nothing, and now I’m headed in the right direction.”

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Ray found Speechcraft--a program developed by Toastmasters International that works on building listening, thinking and speaking skills--a good outlet for his energy. “It’s helped me focus, and it’s improved my ability to communicate with others. I have more confidence. If I’m debating a topic with someone, and I know I’m wrong, I still debate. You have to prove to me that I’m wrong.”

Dan, a mildly retarded 25-year-old man who asked that his last name not be used, prides himself on the certificates he received for a pair of three- to five-minute prepared speeches he gave on motorcycles and the moon. “I was nervous at first before my first speech,” he says. “But it got easier after I started talking.”

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The club got its start at Cactus Gardens two years ago, when Woolbright helped start the Speechcraft program. “This complements those who are in recovery programs for drugs and alcohol, and those in therapy, and helps them find positive, worthwhile educational activities,” Woolbright says.

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“In our society, we tend to be adept at telling people what not to do--don’t use drugs, don’t use alcohol--but here is something we can tell people to do, a clean and sober activity that has positive community values.”

After bringing the Speechcraft program to Cactus Gardens, Woolbright became interested in Toastmasters and last year joined a club based at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove. He also began to see that while the members of Speechcraft were improving their social skills, some wanted more. “We had a number of people who developed the skills to go on, and for them, they needed the format of a Toastmasters club. That would give our members access to clubs around the world, where they could continue to grow and get positive reinforcement,” he says.

Building confidence takes precedence over polishing speaking skills at Winners’ Circle. “Many of our members have never received a certificate or a blue ribbon for excellence” before this, Woolbright says. “Toastmasters has given us a ready-made program in ego building and communication skills.”

Giving a speech before an audience isn’t easy for anyone, but the Toastmaster program is formatted to take each member through a gradual series of steps. “Each step builds into the next one, from standing up and answering a question, to giving longer speeches,” Woolbright says. “The emphasis is on handling yourself in a group of people and making eye contact. It’s a nurturing situation for everyone; the commendations are very generous.

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“It’s fascinating to see the physical change in some of the members after they’ve been involved for a while. They have a complete change of body language, of understanding how their behavior impacts others,” he says.

Although the group supports everyone who tries to improve their speaking skills, success is ultimately dependent on the individuals themselves.

“Of course, you ultimately get out what you put into a program like that,” says Jackie Singer, an Irvine psychologist who has worked with various groups in therapy situations. “But when people get a chance to interact with others, improve themselves and carry those skills into the real world, it’s a positive experience.”

Woolbright says he has seen many changes in the mentally impaired members of the group. “They’re accepted as they are, and they get plenty of encouragement, which leads to their growth and success. In our society, when we know someone is a diabetic and is able to control their disease with insulin, we accept them. But when someone has a mental illness, even if it’s under control, the stigma remains. That’s why they need access to normal responses and encouragement to others,” he says.

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With the success of Toastmasters at Cactus Gardens, Woolbright is hopeful that it can be transferred to other groups. “I think it would do wonders with troubled teens, giving them the affirmation they look for in gangs and drugs. Anyone could benefit from a program like this. We can all use some help communicating with others.”


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