Giving Hope to the Homeless
A club provides skills, confidence
for men in an Atlanta shelter.
By Julie Bawden Davis
“Homelessness is not hopelessness and disability is not inability.”
When Jeannine Jean-Pierre discovered she had a Toastmasters club composed of homeless men in her Atlanta, Georgia, territory, the new area governor at first didn’t know what to do. “I had misconceptions about the club members, and I was reluctant to visit,” she says. “When I got there and heard their stories, though, I realized I had misjudged them and they were just people who have a lot to offer but ended up homeless because of circumstances. I’ve learned a great deal from them.”
The members of Clifton Toastmasters meet at a men’s homeless shelter in Atlanta where many members are residents. The club was chartered in November 2007 by Meredith Turner, a longtime Toastmaster who initially visited the homeless facility as a volunteer. “I got a really good feeling from the men at the shelter and thought starting a club would be good for their self-esteem and could help them in the world,” says Turner.
Clifton Sanctuary Ministries operates the shelter out of a church. Providing year-round overnight and transitional housing, it cares for 30 men a day and has served more than 9,000 since opening its doors in 1979. Residents have a wide variety of problems, from heart conditions to diabetes to substance abuse and HIV/AIDS. Alice Jenkins, executive director of Clifton Sanctuary, is thrilled with the addition of the Toastmasters club, saying its effectiveness has exceeded her expectations. “Initially, the men’s self-esteem is very low,” she says. “But when they stand up during their Ice Breaker and their denials become truths as they admit to problems – such as being addicted to drugs – the walls they’ve been hiding behind start to break down. Learning to speak makes them feel better about themselves and gives them the courage to go out and interview for jobs and advocate for themselves.”
Turner says she has also been positively affected by the Toastmasters club. “When you hear the men’s heartbreaking stories, it makes you realize that we all have troubles and things we feel shameful about.”
The club’s current president, Prince Davies-Venn, is a chaplain and case manager at Clifton Sanctuary. He has seen dramatic transformations in club members. “They come to see that homelessness is not hopelessness and disability is not inability,” he says. “Those involved with Toastmasters often find jobs more quickly than other residents; the club’s supportive atmosphere gives them enthusiasm and the energy necessary to do what needs to be done.”
Members of the Clifton club have inspiring stories to share. Here are some examples:
People always commended Kevin Stewart for being a talker, but it wasn’t until he joined Toastmasters that he started organizing his thoughts in a meaningful way. A photographer who was once a paralegal, Stewart found himself homeless and seeking shelter at Clifton.
“For several years I had relied on the gratuity of others, and I finally decided it was time to grow up and learn to take care of myself,” he says. “During my stay at the Sanctuary, I did a lot of soul-searching and Toastmasters was a vital part of my self-discovery. I had an ‘Aha’ moment during my Ice Breaker, when I realized it was time to come clean and confess my sins. Opening myself up was worth it; members applauded and acknowledged hearing me.” In fact, his audience heard him so well, he won a recent club contest.
Keith Pinder says he was at the lowest point of his life when he walked into one of the first Toastmasters meetings held at Clifton.
“The club allowed me to keep my head up and my mind off my troubles and focus on something greater than myself,” says the former Baltimore resident, who left that city and moved to Atlanta to get away from negative circumstances. Though the move proved to be the best decision he ever made, he did end up homeless for a time.
While at the Sanctuary, he joined Toastmasters to improve his communication skills. “When you speak and people say you did a good job, that boosts your self-esteem and gives you fuel to do something better,” he says. “I’ve learned to channel my energy and thoughts into something productive.” As a result of the contacts he made in Toastmasters, Pinder found work and is now opening his own staffing business with his wife, Nadira Adama, whom he married last April. “I have work, a nice house, a great wife and a beautiful baby son, and that was all made possible by the confidence I gained through Toastmasters.”
Marvin Perkins Jr.
When Marvin Perkins Jr. went to his first Toastmasters meeting at Clifton Sanctuary, he didn’t expect it to awaken the poet in him. The former Brooklyn, New York, resident, who has long battled drug and alcohol addiction, had been clean and sober for two years when he arrived in Atlanta, but then he relapsed and continued on a downward spiral that would cost him everything.
“By the time I finally woke up, I had lost my family, my job and my self-respect, and I needed a way to recover from that,” he says. “I was devastated when I walked into the Toastmasters meeting, but I soon gained direction, inspiration and motivation.”
Perkins often writes poetry and songs, which he finds therapeutic. One of his poems, “Sometimes I Cry,” was published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper and chronicles his struggle with addiction and the damage it caused him and his loved ones. Today, he has a job and continues to attend Toastmasters meetings. “Club members always support each other, and that makes a big difference,” Perkins says.
Greg Ellis never imagined that he’d be using the skills he learned in Toastmasters so soon after joining. “I liked the club the first time I attended, but I didn’t see how it was going to help me. Then I got a job as a tutor and they asked me to do what amounted to an Ice Breaker,” he says.
Ellis, who moved to Georgia from South Carolina, originally worked as a forklift operator until he lost his job because of a company relocation. He then attended school to be a dialysis technician, but found that he didn’t like working with blood. “I tried to find another job, but couldn’t and eventually ended up on the street,” he says.
When seeking work while at the Sanctuary, he fell and broke his wrist, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. “The only job I could find with a broken wrist was as a tutor, and it turns out I love the work,” he says. “Just as Toastmasters has done for me, I try to give the kids the gift of self-esteem. Many of them also don’t have a father [Ellis was raised by his grandmother], and they often look up to me for direction. I enjoy reminding them of the positives in life and encouraging them to express themselves and be the best they can be.”
Edward Underwood came full circle when he arrived at Clifton Sanctuary. He and his mother attended church there when Underwood was a child and lived down the street in low-income housing. “I used to play basketball in the Sanctuary’s parking lot and rake leaves to earn money for school clothes,” says Underwood, who has fond memories of those days, before he got involved with drugs and alcohol.
After battling a 23-year addiction and separating from his wife, he found Clifton Sanctuary and was attending Toastmasters a week later. “Seeing what the program has to offer was exciting to me because I’ve always thought that I’d like to go into ministry,” says Underwood, whose parents also battled addiction after the death of his brother. “My Ice Breaker went well and brought up a lot of emotions that made me realize that I have a lot to share. Toastmasters has really inspired me and increased my desire to make a difference.”
For more information about the Clifton Sanctuary shelter, visit www.cliftonsanctuary.com.
Julie Bawden Davis is a freelance writer based in Southern California and a longtime contributor to the Toastmaster. You can reach her at Julie@JulieBawdenDavis.com.