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The Breakfast Club

Transforming lives in an urban homeless shelter.

By Corbett Klein


The author, Corbett Klein, is pictured second from right with members of the Trenton Rescue Mission Gavel Club, a counselor from the mission and fellow Toastmasters volunteers.

One of the benefits of turning off your cellphone is the opportunity to look around and observe your environment. You may strike up a conversation with a colleague or stranger to learn something new or develop a friendship. In my case, I conversed with a colleague from Merck Pharmaceuticals, Lue Drummond, DTM, while we both waited for a train to take us home.

Lue and I met at a Merck West Point Toastmasters club lunchtime meeting in Pennsylvania. One day I spoke to him about my experience volunteering at the Rescue Mission of Trenton, New Jersey. The mission provides a safe, clean and warm refuge for the homeless, the hungry, the transient and the addicted. Although I found the people to be respectful and nonjudgmental, it seemed my attempts at teaching resume building, goal setting, time management and interviewing skills fell on deaf ears. The people being served expressed feelings of frustration and hopelessness, saying how nothing they could do would improve their situation.

Lue suggested we start a Toastmasters Gavel club for the shelter residents. I contacted the mission’s teaching administrator, and she was receptive. She had been a Toastmaster herself!

We recruited members of Princeton Toastmasters club in New Jersey, which I later joined, to donate supplies and manuals and help lead meetings. In March 2012 the Trenton Rescue Mission Gavel Club, which members affectionately called The Breakfast Club, was up and running.

Members typically stayed at the mission about three months, and in that time we recognized them with a ribbon if they completed the first five speeches in the Competent Communication manual. Those who progressed through all 10 speeches earned the Competent Communicator designation.

We sometimes piled the members into a bus to attend a Princeton Toastmasters meeting. They enjoyed the speeches and the club’s quarterly lunch celebrations, and ­delivered their own Table Topics speeches.

Trenton is a small town. When Gavel club members left the mission and went into the community, they introduced themselves when they saw me (usually in a store or restaurant) and thanked me for my contribution. Because of my experience at the mission’s Gavel club, I joined Princeton Toastmasters. Between the two clubs I have improved my own speaking skills and am learning to be a more flexible leader.

Toastmasters is much more than an organization that assists members in public speaking. Participation in clubs gives everyone the opportunity to improve their communication skills in any environment, whether at an interview, job presentation or family gathering—in the courtroom or during a telephone conversation. We learn skills like time management, leadership and coaching in a positive, friendly environment. Best of all, we develop self-confidence and make friends with others who strive to improve.

In the Trenton Rescue Mission Gavel Club, members have challenges, just like in other clubs. Some of the members do not prepare well for their speeches, and many speak of their difficult life experiences. While this can be moving and heartrending, there comes a time when they must seek out opportunities to conduct research and advance to topics beyond their personal experiences.

I appreciate Toastmasters; it seems like a bit of a throwback to another era when perhaps people were more polite and concerned about presenting themselves in a proper way to progress in a civil society. But my experience with The Breakfast Club proves its relevance in all walks of modern society as well.