By RON FANFAIR
While perusing a copy of Share six years ago, Toronto Police Sergeant Rob Samuels stumbled upon a story about a toastmasters club in the city.
Always interested in enhancing his public communications skills, he attended an Ebony Toastmasters Club meeting.
“The rest is history,” said Samuels at an event last week to mark the club’s 10th anniversary. “I am still there.”
He said his comfort and ability levels to speak in front of audiences have increased significantly since joining the organization co-founded by husband and wife, Sam and Rita Burke and Michelle Hughes, a public speaking teacher at The Music Studio since January 2014.
“Previously, I would be a bit nervous and sweating when called upon to make a presentation in a public setting,” said Jamaican-born Samuels who retires as a cop at the end of the year after 30 years on the job. “That’s not the case any longer and that’s a direct result of getting the chance to practice and a lot of encouragement at the club. It’s all about being around the right people in the right environment.”
Sam Burke recalled the first time that Sandra Thompson made a presentation at the club.
“She was sweating so profusely to the point where she was wet around the upper body,” he said. “She was so nervous.”
Nine months ago, Thompson placed second in an impromptu speech contest and last Sunday, she was the keynote speaker at the Montego Bay High School Past Students Association Toronto chapter’s fundraising brunch.
“Just look at her now and what she’s doing,” said Burke. “To see how she has blossomed to the point where she commands a stage and people’s attention is so beautiful.”
Migrating with her parents from Jamaica in the 1970s, Thompson had no idea what Toastmasters did prior to be invited to an Ebony Club meeting by a friend five years ago.
“When she told me they met on Monday nights, that was perfect because it was a free night for me and it was close to home,” said Thompson, the mother of a 24-year-old daughter who graduates from university this fall.
She has benefitted immensely from her association with Ebony Club.
“My confidence level has increased greatly, I am able to articulate myself with clarity, I am more thoughtful when I speak and I have learned how to make my words have an impact,” she said. “Public speaking is important because regardless of who you are speaking to, it’s vital you have a nice flow to your conversation.”
A spa director for the last 13 years, Thompson said the program has helped her grow in other areas.
“I conduct meetings efficiently, my listening skills have been enhanced and I have developed time management skills that enable me to complete tasks on time,” she said.
Ebony is affiliated to Toastmasters International which is a worldwide non-profit educational organization that empowers individuals to become more effective communicators and leaders.
“We are proud to provide an inclusive, supportive and positive environment where members have the opportunity to overcome any fear of public speaking while sharpening their presentation skills,” said Burke.
Starting with seven people, the club has served close to 150 members in the last 10 years.
“Many of those are professionals, but they find themselves in boardrooms and meetings being timid, shy and unsure of what they want to say,” said Burke. “We provide a safe environment where they can ‘mess up’. They aren’t judged or criticized. Instead, they are encouraged to use their body to emphasize what they want to say and use their voice and different inflections to make their point.”
In an era of social media technologies, Burke said strong communication skills remain highly prized by employers which makes Toastmasters’ experiential learning program more valuable.
“They have to go out and make presentations,” he said. “They have to know how to craft what it is they want to say and we can help them do that.”
Married since 1972, the Burkes co-owned Burke’s Books & Picture Framing which was operational for 14 years up until 2008.
“We were toastmasters prior to opening the store,” said Burke. “We however had to put that on hold while we ran the business. It was during that time that we saw a need for a toastmasters program that would mainly benefit our community.
“Through Toastmasters, I developed a sense of confidence in articulating what it is I want to say in any environment and situation. It removed that fear of having to watch what you say. It gave me skills to, in a concise way, say what I wanted to say in a timely manner and effective way. That’s what we try to help others with.”
Ebony Toastmasters meetings are held on Monday nights, starting at 6.45 p.m. at 707 St. Clair Ave. West.