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Jane’s Vision - Sharon Roth

In July, my friend and fellow Toastmaster, Jon sent an email asking for volunteers to participate in a demonstration meeting at a women’s prison in another state. I have only been to one demo meeting, my first Toastmasters meeting two years ago. I like Jon and I like Toastmasters so I said, “Of course!” Within six hours Jon had a team of ten people from three states. Jon asked me which role I would like to take. I said, “Speaker, of course!” I sat down that night and wrote my speech, Project #10 from my Competent Communicator manual, “Inspire Your Audience.” The title of my speech was “Peace Train.” I made some stickers with trains on them, bought some black and white composition books and stuck them on the covers. Some excerpts from my speech:

“I have been a Toastmaster for two years and I have met so many wonderful people. They are so much fun, so smart, so enthusiastic. They lift me up. In my club, we have a mentoring program. Last week I met with my mentor, Eva. I had had a bad day. I was feeling angry. She asked me to tell her about it. She’s a great listener. When I finished my ranting, she said, “Sharon', You know what you need to do? You need to make a list every night of what you loved about your day. What you look for you will find.” What you look for you will find. Hmmmm…

I started journaling that night. I wrote, “I love that my health insurance paid for my dentist visit today.” That put a positive spin on that toothache! I had four things on my list. I have been writing every night and have come to look forward to it. It’s my time to get peaceful. I think of it now as my very own Peace Train. The other suggestion Eva had was to go to sleep with a thought about doing something positive the next day. I took this advice and set a simple goal: I would like to laugh. The next day, there was a cake for our CEO in the conference room. It was his 40th birthday. There were about thirty people sitting around the room chatting with each other. I stood up and got their attention. I addressed my CEO, who is an Italian-American. I told him that I had just learned the reason why the Italians lost WWII: “The officers were supposed to order shells and they ordered ziti” Thirty people laughed! You don’t know me very well, but I’ll tell you this: That never would have happened before I came to Toastmasters. My mentor also asked me if I meditate. I do. I have a daily meditation book called, “Faith in the Valley.” Every morning I hold the book and I say, “Thank you for giving me the words I need today.” It’s amazing. I recently read a meditation which made the point that concentrating on the dark only keeps us living in it. The author described how a photographer brings a negative into a darkroom and by exposing it to light, changes the picture. She went on to say that there is light inside all of us, no matter who we are, no matter where we are. All we have to do is let the light shine and our life will have a different picture. When I have a bad day, I can go home and fan the flames of hatred and anger by writing all the things that went wrong that day. But if I write about all of the craziness, I’m just inviting more craziness into my life. Instead, I write about the things I loved about the day. I change my point of view by going to a different place. I get there by taking my Peace Train. I’d like to invite you to take a ride on your very own Peace Train. You’ll need a book so I brought some for you. Start tonight. Try it for a month. You WILL see a difference.” I rehearsed until I could do this eight-to-ten minute speech smoothly within the time limit. The day before the meeting we got a list of things we could not wear; hoodies, jeans, green shirts, orange shirts, open toed shoes. I wrote back to everyone that I was going to wear a bikini because that wasn’t on the list. A teammate wrote back, “That will sure make the search easy!”

The day of the meeting I was nervous. I arrived at the prison early and sat in my car waiting for Jon. I heard someone inside screaming. I got more nervous. “What did I get myself into?” When our team arrived, we were greeted by Jane, who was dressed in a tailored blouse, skirt and heels. She looked to be about 21 and innocent. She was so proud to show us her Competent Gavelier Award. It took us a moment before we realized, “She’s an inmate.” Later, we would learn that she is the mother of eight and in her 30’s. Our team, most of whom I had never met before, was escorted to a meeting room where Jane gave an impromptu speech. She told us how she went to a Toastmasters gavel club meeting because her friend told her, “Get out of bed and come with me.” She attended her first meeting and liked it. She gave speeches. She served as the club president. She learned communication and leadership skills. She completed her Competent Communicator manual. Then came a transfer to another facility as a step in her transition to parole. She joined a Leadership Group where she shared how Toastmasters had changed her life. As her new home did not have a Toastmasters club, Jane asked how she could get one started. This speech signified the realization of her vision. The irony, however, was that Jane could not attend the demo meeting because she was in transition and would soon be released.

After Jane’s speech, we were taken to another room where we were asked to leave our wallets, keys, and cell phones in a locker. We were wanded and taken to another area where we traded our driver’s licenses for visitors’ badges, which were needed to go “behind the walls.” Our meeting room had a lectern and cafeteria-style chairs. We put up a banner and arranged the seating. One by one, twenty women came into the room, some of them in green scrubs and some in orange. They didn’t look like “hardened criminals” to me. They looked like young women who had made a mistake.

They were starting out just like Jane had, attending their first Toastmasters meeting. They looked a little apprehensive but our demo team was welcoming and made them feel comfortable. Our Toastmaster, Richard explained all of the roles. My speech was first. I focused on my audience, who were attentive. They laughed at my joke. Their applause was genuine. They were eager to participate in Table Topics and all used the word of the day: aplomb. Their smiles and laughs were signs they were getting into it. They were receptive and enthusiastic. When we opened the floor for questions, they just wanted to know how they could start a club.

Nearly every guest shook my hand and thanked me. I asked each one, “Are you going to write tonight?” They all said, “Yes!” Driving home, I felt so uplifted. I had gone there because of Jane’s vision. I loved my time in prison. Four days later the prison board approved funding of the club charter. We are all thrilled. I did some research on prison clubs and learned that inmates who join a Toastmasters club in prison have 5 to 10% recidivism, as opposed to 50-75% of inmates who do not participate in Toastmasters and return to prison. Jon asked me if I would be a mentor for the gavel club. I said, “Yes,” of course.

When I first agreed to mentor the inmates, I was planning to go once a month. I wasn’t able to do that, however. I go every week. I can’t stay away. Last week, after the meeting when I returned to the lobby to retrieve my keys from the locker, I was greeted by Jane’s smiling countenance. I was reminded that I was there because of her and her vision. Thank you, Jane!

Note: Jane’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.

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