Public speaking is consistently ranked the number one fear of adult Americans. The Rochester Chamber Toastmasters are disrupting that familiar narrative by empowering area high school students to confidently embrace public speaking opportunities.

The Toastmasters’ 8-week Youth Leadership Program is wrapping up its sixth year at the Alternative Learning Center (ALC), one of Rochester’s public high schools. On Wednesday mornings for the last two months, students have been gathering from 8 a.m. to 8:50 a.m. in Beth Rojas’ classroom for the program.

On a particularly sunny Wednesday morning earlier this spring, I had the opportunity to sit in on a session. Tim Amert, Mike Winkles and Greg Klinger were the three Toastmasters volunteers that day.

After a review of the morning’s schedule, it was time for the three student speeches of the day. A volunteer leader from the classroom did all the introductions that day and formally shook each speaker’s hand as the Toastmasters protocol encourages.

First, Gabe gave a talk about procrastinating complete with a bag full of props, sailor hat, and the kind of playful humor that instantly warmed up the room. Next, Jacq shared about the positive impacts of drawing. She provided a desktop full of samples and asked classmates to take one if they’d like.

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"There isn’t a person in here who can’t do a fantastic drawing. Anyone can draw," she said encouragingly.

Seth then gave his speech about the brain benefits of playing chess, complete with a board and all its pieces.

The room filled with applause after each speech. From the outside, it appeared to be a typical high school classroom, but inside it felt like more. Rojas’ classroom, like all the rooms of the ALC, are spaces that have been cultivated by teachers, students, administrators and community partners to be grounded in an attitude of mutual respect, adaptability and encouragement.

The session lasted just less than 50 minutes. The three Toastmasters expressed individual feedback to each of the day’s speakers. Several students also had the opportunity to give spontaneous speeches. The day concluded with everyone helping to get the space back in order and set up for the next class to begin.

After class I spoke with Seth and Jacq, two of the morning’s speakers. Jacq said, "It’s a useful experience for everyone. It’s also really fun." Seth shared next. He described the ways that the training has helped him to improve eye contact during public speaking. "These are all skills that are going to help us later in life," he reflected.

For Rojas, the partnership with the Rochester Chamber Toastmasters has been outstanding. She teaches a variety of subjects at ALC and primarily focuses on ninth-grade students.

"I can’t say enough wonderful things about this partnership with Toastmasters," she said. "They’ve been great mentors to my students."

The Toastmasters also feel encouraged by the partnership with ALC.

"Partnerships like this are so important to our community because everyone benefits," Klinger said. "The students and school benefit from having some guidance for the kids as they tackle public speaking. As Toastmasters, the Youth Leadership Program is one way we can serve the community, which I think is the main reason a lot of us want to improve our public speaking and leadership skills through Toastmasters to begin with."

Klinger and fellow Toastmaster Amert both highlighted that the students of ALC are a source of inspiration to them. Amert described that, over the years, the students have taught him that "persistence and perseverance and drive can overcome big issues." Klinger said that being with the students reveals that "everyone has a story or a talent that will take you by surprise."

Public speaking is a life skill that can open doors and increase confidence. The partnership between the ALC and the Rochester Chamber Toastmasters is a reminder that when groups work together, new possibilities expand and mutual transformation takes place.