March 10, 2016
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Published: March 1, 2016
By: Katie McPherson
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It’s not often someone goes to prison to get inspired, but Dr. Manal Fakhoury does it every Tuesday and Saturday. She has been a member of Toastmasters, a public speaking organization, for about eight years.
“Toastmasters International is a 91-year-old organization, and it’s in over 130 countries. The Gavel Clubs are done in prisons, and they allow the gentlemen to work on their leadership and communication skills. Back in July, we started the club after I received a letter from an inmate,” she says. That inmate was Leonard Rera, who had participated in a Gavel Club at a previous correctional institution and sent the letter to Toasting Ocala, a local Toastmasters chapter.
Leonard is now the club president, overseeing the program and the other officers.
Although it seems like a crash course in public speaking, the effects ripple much further—into life-changing territory.
"I’ve been in prison since I was 18, so the experience I’m gaining here is going to help me be successful in the workplace because I’ve never had a professional experience,” says Joshua. “This is giving me skills I can put into practice in interviews.”
Another X-Treme Speaker, Michael Parker, relates.
“For someone like myself, I came to prison at a young age, so stuff like this, getting up and speaking to groups of people and professional kinds of skills, the formalities, the traditional stuff we have to learn how to do, I wouldn’t have gotten that experience. I never had the opportunity to do that,” he says.
Fellow member and Parliamentarian Richard Midkiff confirms that Gavel Club provides a learning structure for younger men who may have been missing one before prison.
“One of the cool things I see is a lot of younger guys getting into it, studying and looking for topics, seeing them watch the news and critique politicians with their ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’. We were sitting there watching them cupping their hands, and they were saying ‘No! Open your hands up!’ It’s cool to see that, to see younger guys in here digging and trying to find something of value,” he says.
“It’s a passion of mine to see a man learn how to challenge the way he speaks to a more professional level,” says X-Treme Speakers President James Sheffield. He says he enjoys hearing their language change, “going from do’ to door.”
“Often people equate your communication skills with your intelligence,” Manal adds. Andre believes his Toastmasters skill set will be applicable beyond the workplace, making him a better father and family member.
“In every aspect of life you have to communicate, and the more effectively you communicate, the more effectively you can resolve issues and create relationships. Once you gain practice, you start to apply it out there in your regular relationships and you see that it works. You start to put faith in that system, and you use it daily,” he says.
Gavel Clubs provide something else these inmates say is sorely missed in prison: a sense of community, one built on respect and mutual learning instead of fear.
“The natural mindset of an inmate in prison is antisocial. ‘I can’t talk to anyone, they’re out to get me, it’s every man for himself, it’s cutthroat,’ things like that,” Leonard says. “This program is the exact opposite. It encourages open dialogue, friendship, relationships. It encourages all those things we’ve been lacking in prison.”
As Florida's largest state agency, the Department of Corrections employs more than 24,000 members statewide, incarcerates more than 100,000 inmates and supervises nearly 140,000 offenders in the community.