BY KATE SANTICH
TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE
ORLANDO – It’s a Tuesday night at a chapel in Parramore, and 20-some men from a local homeless shelter file in for a meeting. It opens with a prayer, a joke and a Word of the Day.
“Onerous.” Use it in a sentence, and you get extra points.
One man is designated timekeeper, others will critique, and yet another will count the number of times a speaker uses the words “uh,” “er” or “um,” which are frowned upon.
This is not the world’s most nitpicky Bible study. It’s a rare Toastmasters club, run out of the Orlando Union Rescue Mission in Orlando and filled with men who have faced poverty, addiction, prison time, abuse and just plain rotten luck.
They’ve named their group “Mission Possible.” Only a handful like it exist across the country.
“Everything about this club runs counter to the perception of what a homeless person is,” says Teresa Loomis, an executive at Orlando Health who launched the group last fall. “A lot of these guys are smarter than your average bear. You just have to give them the chance to reveal the gem hidden inside.”
Loomis met the men while volunteering at the mission a year ago and was impressed by their work ethic and character.
A former member of a Lake Nona Toastmasters club, she knew the international nonprofit – better known for business networking and honing corporate speaking skills – could bolster their job-interviewing potential and boost self-confidence. It could broaden their vocabularies, refine listening skills, improve time management and nurture intellectual curiosity.
She asked her employer to pitch in $2,000 for the dues, fees and materials she’d need to form an official club and enlisted a veteran Toastmaster to supervise. At the first meeting last October, 40 men showed up.
Loomis had no idea what to expect.
“I’m told that some of those guys, before they came to Toastmasters, basically sat in a corner and never opened their mouths,” she says. “But I’ve never seen a group so eager to participate, so dedicated to becoming part of something.”
In six months, two of the men already have qualified for competition against 23 other Toastmasters clubs in Greater Orlando. And one – 52-year-old Ron Betts – has won his way to the district championships next month, where he’ll compete against clubs from throughout the northern half of Florida, representing a collective 4,000 members.
His speech, “My Mess Has Become My Message,” is the stark, autobiographical journey of a 4-year-old kid whose aunt gave him alcohol and drugs in order to sexually abuse him. If he wins there, he’ll go to Washington, D.C., to compete in the nationals.
“I only do it because I know there’s someone out there who went through something like I did, and if they can hear that and be inspired by it and motivated by it, I’m all for it,” he says. “My whole speech is about redemption.”
On to law school
Betts, a compact, straight-shouldered man with a robust voice, once dabbled in Toastmasters in his former life, but only to boost his networking opportunities as a salesman. He was married then, but his tendency to numb himself to painful memories had grown into a rampant addiction to whatever drugs he could get his hands on.
While he managed to stay functional enough to continue working and even earn a bachelor’s degree in business, he unraveled when his wife divorced him.
He ate from garbage cans, smoked crack and lived on the streets. If he didn’t change, he knew, he’d likely die there, too.
Since staring down his personal demons, he has become sober, taken and passed the law-school entry exam and been accepted to the Florida A&M University College of Law in Orlando, where he’ll start in August, still living at the mission. Toastmasters has been part of his recovery. Each time he speaks, he says, he feels empowered.
Finding their voices
Though the club members give speeches on everything from politics to sports to science to faith, the real gift of Toastmasters is not the subject matter they learn. Nor is it their growing verbal dexterity — although that’s critical — or the chance to have someone genuinely listen to them after, perhaps, years of being ignored.
It’s about finding their own voices.
“I’m a very held-back, shy person,” says Johnny Donaldson, 31, who attended his first club meeting this month, eight weeks after arriving at the mission. “I stay to myself, and I know that has hindered me from getting a job at times. But I don’t want to feel intimidated anymore.”
Job offers, charter
Paul Bird, a 62-year-old Air Force veteran who spent much of his adult life struggling with alcoholism, understands the desire. When he first attended Toastmasters, he didn’t want to say anything.
“I didn’t recognize him,” says his niece, Elizabeth Lynn, who works at the mission. “I’d always known him as sort of the outgoing party guy. But since being a part of Toastmasters, he has this confidence now that our family hasn’t seen in quite some time. It’s like he has found himself.”
Bird has also gotten two job offers — extended by members of other clubs who heard him speak at a local competition.
Representatives from Toastmasters International joined the Mission Possible meeting on April 12 to award the club its official charter. The men served cake to celebrate the milestone and extended the club’s membership to the public – anyone 18 and older who wants to join.
“I want everybody to know about these guys,” Loomis says. “They could be great employees, great neighbors, great friends.”