My Turn: From Topeka with Hope

My Turn: From Topeka with Hope

Toastmasters lets us get in touch with our good qualities.

By Alvin Emil Vopata, DTM, Ph.D.

One evening in 1961, a few of us from an extended treatment ward of Topeka State Hospital in Topeka, Kansas, were brought to a room. As soon as we were seated, an occupational therapist explained that Gavel clubs, a part of Toastmasters International, met in various institutions to help inmates improve their communication and leadership skills.

In view of the fact we had just come from the back ward of a state mental institution where incoherent expressions of hallucinations were common kinds of communication, and our experience with leadership had been doing what the attendants directed us to do, we wondered how those skills might be improved.

To my surprise, the Gavel club followed a structured format, with several opportunities to speak and listen apart from the disturbing dynamics of ward life. I soon found it was a refuge from the shadows of my life – a place where the emotional strains of losing two friends could be put on hold for a while, and I could imagine brighter times ahead.

The first friend I’d lost had leaped out of one of the institution’s few unlocked windows as we were climbing the stairs to the top floor for dinner; the other had plummeted to the ground from an attic window after he had been tormented by a band of sadistic teenagers on our ward. Their futures fell with them while mine now had hopes of ascending, but I knew I still had many challenges to overcome.

Outside the asylum, I found life was often difficult and depressing, as I attempted to find employment while I carried the stigma of being a former mental patient. Having very low self-esteem did not help my cause, nor did the fact that I had no means of financial support other than whatever short-term job I managed to acquire.

After going through a series of odd jobs, and selling my blood until I was too anemic to do that, I somehow graduated from Washburn University with a degree in English. Then I began teaching students with visual impairments in New York City.

Although that was not my career goal while I was a Kansas farm-boy, I succeeded even though my low self-confidence prevented me from facing people directly. Fortunately, eye contact with my blind students was not an essential job requirement. If it were, perhaps time spent in Toastmasters then could have worked wonders.

Later, 20 years after I walked out of the Gavel club at the state hospital, I walked into a Toastmasters club in Visalia, California. You could say I was not in a big rush to go from one to the other.

After joining, I stayed with Toastmasters in various clubs for well over a decade while advancing through the levels that led to my becoming a Distinguished Toastmaster in 1985. I enjoyed many leadership roles and acquired more than 30 speaking awards.

My experiences included reaching the fourth level of competition in a series of speech contests. As those accomplishments expanded my abilities and confidence, they also motivated me to share what I had gained with young people who had potential for developing their abilities.

I chose the avenue of working with the Youth Leadership Program and served as the District Youth Leadership chairman in Tulare County, California, for two years. Several other Toastmasters assisted me in conducting programs in various youth programs and schools. Of those, we made the biggest difference at Robert K. Meyers Boys Ranch, a juvenile correctional facility. At the end of our sixth Youth Leadership Program held at the location, the director told me ours was the most beneficial and effective program from the community.

To conclude each eight-week program, we had an awards night with a speech contest in which those who stayed with the program demonstrated their skills and acquired confidence in front of peers, staff, parents, probations officers, juvenile judges, and Toastmasters.

When I recently read my notes from those competitions, I was reminded Toastmasters is not only a way to improve one’s communication and leadership skills. It is also a unique, liberating opportunity that provides hope for persons out of the mainstream of life, such as I had been.

Ken, a participant in one of those contests, told the awards-night audience: “What has stuck with me about Toastmasters is it made it possible for me to get in touch with my good qualities. It gives you the opportunity to achieve, to have pride in what you have done.”

I agree. Toastmasters has given thousands of us the opportunity to achieve and “to get in touch” with our good qualities. That is why it has remained a great world-wide program.

Alvin Emil Vopata, DTM, Ph.D., is a member of Haworth-Wichita club in Wichita, Kansas.