Members Share What Oak Park Toastmasters Means to Them
(Cheryl Weiss, April 6, 2021)
Oak Park, MI – If you are like many people, one of your biggest fears is public speaking. Do your knees shake, your voice tremble, and anxiety grip your heart just thinking about it? It does not have to be such a scary experience, especially with the support and skills provided by Toastmasters International!
What is Toastmasters? According to the Toastmasters International website, www.toastmasters.org, Toastmasters International has helped millions of people around the world become more confident public speakers for nearly 100 years. Some join for professional reasons; to excel in their field or to run for political office, while others join for personal growth. Toastmasters Clubs are in over 150 countries with over 16,000 different clubs, each with their own personality. Some very closely follow the Toastmasters structure while others are more casual, but all welcome members and guests to participate and challenge yourself to improve your public speaking skills. Each club offers interactive learning and leadership opportunities; members are encouraged to take on meeting roles, such as Jokemaster, Speaker, or Grammarian, as well as take on club leadership positions. Feedback is provided at every meeting in a positive, supportive, encouraging manner. In addition, experienced members serve as mentors. The Oak Park Toastmasters group meets every Monday from 6:30 – 8:00 pm on Zoom. Information is available on their website and their Facebook page: (2) Toastmasters – Oak Park, MI (club 1547) | Facebook.
What are Oak Park Toastmasters meetings like?
Everyone is welcomed at the beginning of the meeting. No one is required to speak at any time, but guests are invited and encouraged to share something about themselves. Members have specific roles with prepared speeches, both short and longer. Each week there are eight roles which rotate on a weekly basis. “There is no pressure within our club, but we all come to grow,” said Julius Lawrence. At a recent meeting, Artaymis Ma’at prepared the word of the day: desiratum. Ernestine P. Stewart was the Jokemaster, and prepared a joke to share with the group. Yolanda Charles prepared Table Topics, which included a variety of topics she asked members to discuss. In addition, two speakers prepared longer speeches; Julius Lawrence spoke about how to use the new Toastmasters website and Gregory Whiting talked about a person who went from slave to Tuskegee Airman. Two members gave feedback on their speeches, noting what the speakers did well, and offering suggestions to consider for future speeches, all in a supportive manner. Ma’at served as Grammarian, noting speaking habits that are distracting such as the use of ‘ya know’ or frequent throat clearing. At the end of the meeting, winners were announced for the best speaker (longer speech) and the best Tabletop speaker.
Why did Mayor Marian McClellan join the Oak Park Toastmasters?
McClellan joined the Oak Park Toastmasters in summer 2011, when she was running for Mayor. As excited as she was to run, “panic set in” about making speeches, she shared. “I still remember the story the man told at the meeting, that the fear of public speaking is so common at a funeral, many of us would rather be in the casket than making the speech.”
McClellan avoided speaking the entire time she was a member, yet it was a good experience for her. She listened, watched, took in all the information, and used it when she was ready. Through the speeches others gave, she learned to focus on what the audience needs to know, and to see speaking opportunities as a gift. She read the magazine available through Toastmasters and gained lots of helpful tips. A noted moment of achievement for McClellan was in 2014, when she gave a commencement address at Wayne State University. She thought about the audience, the graduates, and spoke to their hearts. That was her proudest moment.
Who are some of the current Oak Park Toastmasters?
Craig Fulton, President
Craig Fulton, a long-time Oak Park resident, is the President of the Oak Park Toastmasters. His first term as President was in 2012, and this current term began July 1st, 2020. Elections are held annually. He joined because he wanted to be a better communicator. He struggled with getting to a point in speaking; structuring a speech effectively was a challenge.
When asked what he likes about the group, he responded “We work together. We are a team effort. That, to me, is the most important thing. I have been mentored by Julius, Ida, Phillip, and Ernestine. They all were Toastmasters before me. They took me under their wing and mentored me.” It’s not just about Toastmasters, however. “Outside of Oak Park Toastmasters we have a bond beyond the Toastmasters border. We are there for each other in challenges; we rally around each other.” Just as many members often discuss how much Fulton’s leadership and support has meant to them, he shared that in February and March 2020, he had Covid-19, and the Oak Park Toastmasters family supported him. “Overcoming that was huge,” he said.
The most memorable experience with Toastmasters for Fulton was in 2014, when he won first place with his speech about a life lesson he learned as a child and was invited to compete at the Toastmaster International World Semi Finals in Malaysia. “You get so humbled,” he said. “It was a truly great experience; the people are so hospitable there.” Now, with the pandemic, competitions have moved online.
He views his experience with Toastmasters as his laboratory; he continues to grow as he continues to prepare speeches. The listening skills he has gained and the feedback he receives with each presentation challenges him to grow.
What else is special about Oak Park Toastmasters? First, he says, is the material. You choose your own material, you choose what roles you want to take on in the group, and you work at your own pace. You are challenged to grow, but at a pace that is right for you. Secondly, the connections with other members are important. “It is always pleasant to share with them, to see them, and to share connections.” Finally, the experience itself is important. “We try to make it a positive experience. We look out for one another. Ultimately, we learn more in times of fun than anything else.”
According to Fulton, Oak Park Toastmasters is different from what people may think it is. It’s not just making speeches and listening to speeches. It’s about leadership too. He explained that in the club, you learn different leadership roles and communication opportunities that will make you better and more effective outside the club. Members are empowered – that’s the key. There is a broad range of age and ethnic diversity within the club. Over the years, some have come, some have left, and some have stayed. In the process, members learned from each other.
The worldwide pandemic has changed many facets of our lives; the regular interactions we had with others in person has been put on hold for a year now. According to Fulton, we have a need to communicate with each other. “Nothing rises above being able to speak to someone in person, but the opportunity is not always there.” Still, communication matters, and moving to Zoom to hold Toastmasters meetings has been effective. ‘A year ago, I knew nothing about Zoom,” Fulton said, “Now we rely on it.”
Ernestine Stewart came to Oak Park Toastmasters years ago and stayed through a series of life-changing crises. Most notably, in 2007 Stewart was in a coma for three months. During the time she was in a coma, she heard what was being said by the medical professionals about her. She heard the doctors, she heard the nurses, and she heard her family members. “They said I would be a vegetable. God didn’t create me to be a vegetable!” Stewart emerged from the coma, went through rehabilitation, worked on regaining the speech abilities that she lost in the coma, and…started growing vegetables!
It took two years, but in 2009 she returned to Oak Park Toastmasters. Her experience during the coma inspired award-winning speeches. She won first place at the Oak Park club, and third place in the Metro Detroit area competition. In addition, she recently won with a speech she gave about her brother’s death. “I’m telling you; I absolutely love the club! All of us are family; we support each other in the club and out of the club.”
While everyone is supportive of each other in this close-knit club, some members especially go above and beyond. Stewart said, “Julius especially. Julius never quit, never gave up. He was there for everything. He came to the hospital when I was critically ill. It upset him to see me that way…he told me to not give up. It’s him that encouraged me to go on to the next level (in competition). He said ‘No, don’t stop! Your stories are inspirational; we need to hear them.’” Everyone is so encouraging.
What does she like about Oak Park Toastmasters? “It’s right here in the city, right in your neighborhood. It’s the best kept secret! If you are a leader or want to be a leader, it is for you. We are welcoming, warm, encouraging, and give you feedback. Test us out and see! You learn how to listen. Communication is talking and listening.”
Lawrence is the longest serving member of Oak Park Toastmasters, going on 23 years.
He was working for DTE and took a Dale Carnegie twelve-week course. The instructor encouraged him to join Toastmasters, advising that if Lawrence wants to be a good public speaker, he needs regular practice. That choice has impacted his life as well as the lives of other members in the group. “Our Club in Oak Park is an outstanding resource for the community, for those who want to be proficient in public speaking,” he said. “The reasons people have joined Oak Park Toastmasters over the years vary. Some may just want to read a book to their child’s class; some want to be professional public speakers.” And Lawrence shared that about ten years ago, an 18-year-old student who was homeschooled used Toastmasters for her English class. “If you want to compete, there are opportunities from the Metro Detroit area to the region, which includes nearby states, to District competitions with over 100 clubs, to competing in other countries. Craig Fulton, President of Oak Park Toastmasters, competed and won in Malaysia!” Lawrence said.
Relationships matter to Lawrence. “I like to think we’re all friends. We built relationships outside of the club. We’re there for each other at weddings, funerals, events…we like to support each other and assist each other.” Even when some members come and go, he remains connected with them via Facebook.
In the time Lawrence has been with Oak Park Toastmasters, there have been significant recognitions. The club received an award for the greatest increase in members and the greatest number of members.
“Oak Park Toastmasters is a great resource for those who want to overcome the fear of public speaking. You get to practice speaking skills and work on listening skills,” Lawrence said.
Ma’at has been a member of Oak Park Toastmasters since 1993. She joined because of the respect they have for each other. The President has a warm personality and she compared being in Toastmasters to being around a bonfire, sharing stories. “We love each other, respect each other. There is no arguing; we learn from each other.”
She really likes the leadership’s communication style. Craig Fulton, the club President, embraces leadership; he is concerned about everyone. One example is that he texts everyone individually and asks what they think. No one is left out; there is no favoritism.
The members share their personal lives with each other. “We all have something to share; we celebrate birthdays together.”
When Ma’at’s mother passed last year, all the members got together, collecting money for her immediately. They showed up for the homegoing and supported her through the grieving process.
She recommends Oak Park Toastmasters for anyone trying to improve their communication skills. She believes it is a “great opportunity to learn effective listening, to become an inspirational and motivational speaker in a comfortable, supportive group.” In addition, Oak Park is special because “to this day, Oak Park holds true to the traditions originated in 1924.” And Ma’at knows that not all clubs do that. She has visited Toastmaster Clubs around the world, especially over the last year via Zoom. From meetings in Hawaii to Seattle to India, “each club is different,” she said. “You find your tribe.”
Ida joined 15 years ago, when the club was ten years old. “I wanted to improve my extemporaneous (impromptu) speaking skills. I was challenged with that, as most people are.” At Oak Park Toastmasters, she had the opportunity to improve her presentations, from five to seven-minute speeches to longer keynote speeches. She met that goal. In addition, she learned that the most important thing about improving communication skills is to be a better listener. “What I like most is that it’s a safe environment to learn,” Vance said. The group has helped her to become comfortable with being vulnerable. They give immediate constructive feedback. For the most part, positive feedback is given, then the group offers suggestions the speaker might consider using if they give the speech again. “The goal is to encourage the speaker,” she said.
“I feel more confident speaking in front of groups large and small,” Vance said. Yet as she continued to be a part of the club, she realized it was not just public speaking skills that was added to her life. “I found so much more, that’s why I’m still here. I’m a lifer,” Vance said. She echoed what other members have shared about the members of Oak Park Toastmasters being like a family. “It’s so true. When a member has a loss in the family, we rally around the person. We send cards, flowers, encouragement, and support.”
What else does Vance think makes Oak Park Toastmasters special? “The recurring theme or response over the years which I find remarkable. When we ask each guest to share what they found interesting, they consistently say the warm, friendly, welcoming environment. Time and time again. That means we are on the right track.” She encourages the community to visit Oak Park Toastmasters and see for yourself what a great club they are. “I feel that the community should know that this club, Oak Park Toastmasters, is 25 years old and that we extend an invitation to them to not necessarily join, but to have a Toastmasters experience for themselves.”
Oak Park Toastmasters is for everyone
Public speaking is a common fear, but it does not need to be. According to Fulton, if you turn the nerves into excitement, turn the fear into positive energy, and change the focus from your worries to connecting with your audience, it will make a difference. We all have experiences to share that will encourage and inspire others. “There’s a story in each person; an opportunity to lead. It’s just a matter of it coming out,” he said.
Learn more at Oak Park Toastmasters Club 1547 (toastmastersclubs.org).