Becoming leaders within Coffee Creek Correctional walls
While practicing a speech on the power of music, Angela Kim, an adult in custody (AIC) at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, felt butterflies about performing in front of others and taking the risk of playing a ukulele during her recitation. She even considered not giving the speech at all.
That's when her longtime cellmate Carolyn Exum stepped in — reminding her of her positive attributes and encouraging her to go for it.
"She said, 'No, you can do this speech,'" Kim recalled. "She pointed out all the strengths she felt I had. I didn't see those strengths in myself. The speech was well received. I had a good evaluation. Carolyn said, 'I told you so.'"
For Exum and Kim, regular encouragement from each other helped them remain in the Toastmasters International program, where participants hone leadership and speech-making skills, over the past 12 years as they recently became the first AICs to earn the high honor of Distinguished Toastmasters.
"It was special to achieve it at the same time," Exum said.
Exum recalls Toastmasters International visiting Coffee Creek 12 years ago and being excited by the hamburgers and fries provided at the meeting, but also because her father was a Toastmaster many years ago.
"I remember him preparing. I remember one time he lost a competition. He was supposed to give a serious speech and someone gave a humorous speech instead and that won," Exum said. "I also won a competition that is more humorous. Humor really brings in a crowd."
Exum, Kim and others started the Coffee Creek club Audacious Orators later that year. And they've been involved ever since. The club currently has about 25 members.
While club members also learn skills related to public relations and leadership, speechmaking is a primary component. The members regularly present speeches, ranging in seriousness from a eulogy to a birthday party toast, within an allotted period of time and within a defined structure.
Sometimes the speeches are impromptu so they have to think on their feet about what they want to say. They also are tasked with critiquing each other's speeches.
Exum's speeches have varied in subject matter from how to live a full life rather than merely existing to "roasting" Kim, which she said was the hardest speech she's given. Kim helped her write the material for it, however.
"People are terrified of public speaking. Even when you're going to an interview, people really struggle answering questions and being able to think effectively in a quick time and come up with great, cohesive answers," Kim said. "We jokingly say if an officer puts you on the spot, we like to think Toastmasters helps with coming up with a really great answer so you don't get in trouble."
Through the program, Exum and Kim had to complete a project that positively impacted their community. Kim, a musician, chose to conduct an ongoing music theory program at the prison, where she teaches AICs how to play piano, ukulele, guitar and other instruments.
"When they have a bad day they go in their rooms and play music and they feel better," she said.
Exum, for her part, has started multiple programs for AICs to improve reading skills. Part of the goal of the program for Exum is to lift others' confidence. Growing up, she said a learning disability made her feel feel like she wasn't as smart as her peers.
"I wanted them to know they, too, could overcome it even if they had a learning disability like I did," she said.
One unique component of Toastmasters is that the groups work with fellow Toastmaster programs outside the prison. One club, they said, was impressed with how organized the Coffee Creek meetings were.
"They said our meetings put a lot of people's clubs out there to shame. We hold ourselves to a very high standard," Kim said. "We also have this idea that we're subpar in some way. They assured us that we blew their expectations out of the water."
Attaining the Distinguished Toastmaster award is no easy task: It includes delivering hundreds of speeches, completing the aforementioned project, becoming a district officer, holding other leadership positions within your club and earning other distinctions like the Competent Communicator award. This is why it took them 12 years to achieve the honor.
"I was very determined. I wanted to achieve this goal," Kim said.
Exum and Kim were looking forward to celebrating at an awards banquet but that was canceled due to COVID-19. However, they bought ice cream to savor the occasion instead.
Once their sentences end, Kim hopes to work in the cosmetics and beauty industry while Exum wants to work in environmental science. Both were inspired to take up these pursuits through other Coffee Creek programs, but they felt Toastmasters also would prove beneficial.
"Using Toastmaster skills should help me get a customer base and keep it and be able to market myself," Kim said.
Along with leading them to feel more hopeful and confident about the possibility for success once they leave prison, the experience has helped Kim and Exum forge a better relationship with each other and communicate more effectively. Now, even their families are friendly.
"We're more like sisters than anything," Exum said.
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