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Toastmasters Club improves communication skills for prisoners

by Brenda Velasco

Hoping to improve communication and speech skills for prison inmates, Nancy Shatto helps moderate a Toastmasters Club in the medium-security building at Airway Heights Correctional Center.

Nancy Shatto
Nancy Shatto

She sees changes in the men who want to improve their lives.

“They go from someone with no confidence to someone who can speak intelligently without using slang words,” said Nancy. “They are gaining life-long skills and prove they have the ability to make a change for the better. I’m helping men at Airways Heights re-connect with society.”

She believes the key to Toastmasters is for participants to have positive feedback so they gain confidence.

Nancy, who grew up in the Spokane Valley and attends Opportunity Presbyterian Church, first found out about the club at Airway Heights three years ago through Molly Peringer, the Community Partnership Program coordinator with the Department of Corrections. Molly was looking for volunteers interested in helping out with a Toastmasters group at the prison.

Nancy and members of local Toastmasters clubs responded to that call, organized a group of volunteers, and was able to start the program, which they call the Insiders Toastmasters Club.

“We have 10 volunteers committed to the group and we require at least two be present per meeting.” Nancy said. “The volunteers are vital in keeping the program going. If we don’t have them available we can’t run the club.”

Volunteers help guide club members at the correctional center and ensure everything runs as planned. They give support and suggestions to participants during the meeting and encourage inmates when they give a speech.

Toastmasters is an international organization that helps people gain the skills and confidence needed to speak in front of an audience. It has more than 12,500 clubs worldwide and 30 in the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene area.

Nancy, who has been involved with Toastmasters for 10 years, was active in debate in high school and college. She was surprised when one day she was asked to make an announcement during church and was nervous.

“Afterwards a friend invited me to attend a Toastmasters meeting thinking it would help me next time I had to speak in front of a crowd. I had honest feedback from the other members and I liked that.” Nancy said. “Every club has its own personality, and it’s a great place to improve public speaking skills.”

Now she uses her expertise with Toastmasters to help inmates develop their communication and leadership skills and help them to be responsible individuals once they are released from prison and head back into the community.

“The men come from all walks of life and places,” she said. “Some are former teachers, mechanics, musicians, athletes and members of the military. Several are married and have families, but for some reason or other something happened in their lives, and they ended up in prison.”

Currently, there are two Toastmasters Clubs at Airway Heights Correctional Center; one at the medium security building and another at the minimum-security building. The latter is run by another group of volunteers.

Nancy is no stranger to volunteer work. She is active with the children’s program at Opportunity Presbyterian Church, which she attends. She is also a Girl Scout troop leader and serves on the Community Focus Committee for Washington Trust Bank, where she is employed.

“Giving back to the community is why I volunteer with the Toastmasters,” she said. “I want others to gain confidence and they appreciate those who help them.”

The inmates gather once a week in a large multi-purpose room at the corrections facility. Some come consistently, while others come only a few times.

“The men are respectful of each other and the volunteers,” Nancy said. “All of them come voluntarily and they recognize that this is good for their self-development. They are never forced to come. If they don’t want to be a part of the club then that is their choice and we don’t question them.”

Members are always encouraged to bring a guest to the meeting although it is not required of them. About 20 to 30 inmates attend Toastmasters meetings.

“The inmates who come to Toastmasters want to improve their speaking skills so they are better prepared for job interviews and the work force when their sentence is up,” Nancy said. “They want to make themselves employable and build self-esteem. Some men who attend for the first time fit in right away, while others may feel it is not for them and won’t return. They work at their own pace and it’s rewarding to see growth in their attitudes and speaking skills.”

Toastmasters offer the opportunity for all members to make a speech in front of the club at one time or another.

“We call one type of speech we do table topics, which are random questions prepared by the table topic master. Members are called up randomly and have two minutes to answer. They are impromptu without preparation,” Nancy said. “This helps them think on their feet, a skill they need as they prepare for job interviews in the future.”

Some table topics include opinions on current event items, favorite foods or a favorite sport.

Other times they present a prepared speech to the group or fill in with roles such as a timekeeper, evaluator or grammarian.

Afterwards, the evaluators give feedback on what they liked about their speeches and how they can make them better.

The men can make speeches on any topic except religion, politics, sex or race. This reduces the chance of their arguing unnecessarily. Some speeches are fun and uplifting. Others are personal and emotional.

“The inmates share their stories with one another about why they are incarcerated,” Nancy said. “They open up about their experience and it is powerful to hear them describe what happened. Some inmates were involved in gangs or drugs. Others committed robberies, assaults or murders.”

She said they often talk about how much they miss their families, especially those who have children. Many want to make positive changes in their lives.

“One man wanted to say a eulogy for his mother who had passed away but it would have been too expensive for him to go to the funeral with a prison guard escort,” said Nancy. “So instead he is preparing a video eulogy to send to the family. It is helping give him closure.”

As in any Toastmasters club, the inmates at Airway Heights Correctional Center elect leaders, such as club president, vice-president, secretary and sergeant-at-arms. They hold the positions for six months and then have another election. Each week they can also sign up for a specific role such as table topic master, word master, joke master or timer.

Some men have been here for years and are serving long sentences, while others are preparing to be released,” Nancy said. “There are inmates who start out in medium security but are later transferred to the minimum security building. There is a turnover rate but those who are dedicated to the Toastmasters club come or will join the one in the other building once they are moved.”

Nancy is inspired by the responsibility and commitment the men are putting into the Toastmasters Club.

“The men are dedicated to the mission, so they raised $400 by making crafts and selling them,” she said.

For security reasons, volunteers don’t keep in touch with inmates after they are released. Nancy said she does hear when men want to be involved with a Toastmasters group once their prison sentences are over.

For information, call 353-3934 or email