Couched between inch-thick barbed wire fences on the site of Sampson Correctional Institute is a small brick chapel where 18 inmates gather once a week to hone their communication skills, build up their self-confidence, develop a spirit of camaraderie and, in many cases, find hope.
They call themselves the High Achievers Gavel Club, an offshoot of Toastmasters International that is housed within the confines of the prison walls, one of few Toastmasters organizations, if not the only one in the state, carried out in such a facility.
Led by Toastmaster volunteers Chick Gancer and Milley Brewington, among others, the group meets each Monday night, in a warm atmosphere of encouragement and fellowship, where speeches delve into the fear and angst over poor choices and loss of freedom and the renewing spirit of men who’ve found a better way through faith.
While the Toastmasters International mission is to provide a supportive and positive learning environment where individual members are offered the opportunity to develop oral communication and leadership skills, far deeper, even life-altering experiences, have also been achieved by group members, many who will tell you they’ve gained great personal growth even as they’ve mastered other life skills
Inmate Cleveland Ransom said this program was the best self-help program in the state and one he was very glad he decided to join. “I look forward to this every week,” Ransom said last Monday night before the gavel pounded the meeting to order. “This gives us an outlet and, at the same time, we’re learning a skill that will benefit us.”
Ransom’s remarks are echoed by others in the Gavel Club, who said the hour-long sessions each week offer them a chance to hone skills that will enable them to better secure jobs once they’ve paid their debt to society and re-enter the workforce.
Many of those in the club center their speeches around getting out of prison and returning to the world as responsible citizens, hoping to secure jobs and pay their own way.
Last Monday, inmate Anthony Martinez focused on that subject as he delivered his speech on change to his fellows club members.
“A lot of us are afraid of change,” Martinez acknowledged. “It’s really the fear of the unknown. But change can be good, change for the better.”
Martinez said he had changed for the better and he was proud to stand before his fellow club members and acknowledge that fact. “Personally, I changed … I changed my actions, my thoughts, the people I associated with. Now I no longer want the easy way out. When you look for that, you end up in here. The easy way comes and goes. I want something better.
“I’ve decided if I don’t work for it, then I don’t want it,” he said.
Many, Martinez continued, don’t want to change when they return to society but those with that attitude, he said, will wind up right back in prison. “Me, I want change for the better because I don’t want to come back here.”
Juan Perez focused on a similar topic when he stepped to the podium to deliver his speech. Using the cliche “when life hands you lemons, make lemonade,” Perez stressed that it was important for him and his fellow inmates to learn from that phrase.
“That cliche is trying to tell us something, and we should listen. When you have a bad time, with back-to-back problems, the lemons, find a way to make lemonade. Take the opportunities that are offered here, take GED classes, computer classes … do the things that will eventually give you lemonade.”
Perez said he has seized the opportunities and because of that he speaks better English and finds it easier to communicate with others. “I’m finding a way to use what I’ve learned, making lemonade,” he emphasized.
Speeches are often inspirational and, many times, are deep testimonials, much like the one delivered Monday by club president Dean Thompson who spoke passionately about feelings inmates often have, but don’t like to admit, when they are locked behind bars.
“To fear God is the beginning of wisdom,” Thompson told the group.
He reflected on sitting, looking out a window watching the mundane tasks being carried out at the correctional facility. “Those who’ve never been incarcerated will not understand, but you will,” he stressed.
He talked about the inner fear that men don’t want to admit and the times, as inmates, “when you just want to break down and cry … but you can’t. On the inside you want to cry, but on the outside you’re saying ‘I got this, I can handle it.’ Yet inside, you’re nothing more than a frightened little child, your nerves are frayed.”
But, he admonished, all one needs to do is look up. “Call on God, he’s the only one that can help you. At that moment, when I did that, when I looked up, I decided I’m going to take my lemons and make lemonade. I realized that the enemy was in me, that I was my worst enemy, and that I needed to accept responsibility. That was the beginning.”
And Thompson stressed, ‘with every beginning there most be an end to something. For me, it was the end of the old Dean.”end
vital skills that promote self-actualization, enhance leadership potential, foster human understanding and contribute to the betterment of mankind.
The speeches brought applause and high praise from other club members, yet another part of the Toastmaster experience, which also features extemporaneous speaking during something called Table Topics, evaluations by your peers and a word of the day.
Monday’s word, brought to the group by that night’s appointed grammarian Nick Matasich, was loquacious. The appointed grammarian each week is charged with finding a new word, presenting it and defining it. Then members are encouraged to use the word when they stand up to speak.
The meetings are held in the chapel every Monday, and candy or other goodies in a clear package are given as an award for the Best Table Topic Speech, Best Speech and Best Evaluator.
In those meetings, club members greet each other with handshakes as they approach the podium, and each discussion is met with courteous applause from the group.
Discussions are informative and evaluations targeted to offer helpful hints that will allow speakers to improve from week to week as they continue to take the podium as evaluators, the night’s Toastmaster or the grammarian.
Gancer and Brewington offer words of encouragement and inspiration to the members each week, yet another means of helping them boost their self-confidence
“This is a wonderful program,” Gancer said. “To see how these men grow is something to watch. Some come in and can hardly say their name in public, then, as time progresses, you see them improve and before long they’re standing before us with great confidence, able to deliver a speech.”
Gancer said the meetings are designed to equip inmates with skills that can be tied into other learning experiences offered to them through Sampson Community College.
“Being able to communicate with others is important and it is something they are going to need every day when they return to society.”
But it’s also more than that, Brewington stressed. “For many of those who get up to give speeches, it’s an opportunity to share testimonies of faith, being a witness to others.
“I’m always very moved by their testimony, and I think others are too,” Brewington said. “I try to encourage the members to strengthen each other and I share with them Proverbs 27:17, ‘iron sharpens iron.’ If we can help just one of them, it’s important. Just to know that I am making a difference in someone’s life is rewarding, and being a part of this group has been very rewarding.”