Two women housed at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility (CCCF) have become the only two incarcerated women in the nation to earn the Distinguished Toastmasters Award. This is the highest individual honor you can achieve in Pathways, Toastmasters’ education program. For both Angela Kim and Carolyn Exum, this distinction was over seven years in the making, so we asked them to reflect on the experience in their own words. Read their stories below.
My journey to Distinguished Toastmaster (DTM) was seven and a half years, exciting and challenging all the way. Over 56 speeches were given and many leadership goals were completed. I participated in multiple speech competitions and won a few. I served as club President, Treasurer and Area Director. Most recently I co-coached our own Coffee Creek club, Audacious Orators, and the club was recognized as a President’s Select Club. This is the highest honor a club can receive.
The most difficult project to complete was the High-Performance Leadership program. The goal is to make a positive change for the community. For years I had been teaching piano lessons in the chapel but never had enough time to accommodate all who wanted lessons. I had dreamed of a music program where multiple adults in custody could be taught at one time, thus accommodating more people. My motivation came from a story my mother had told me. It spoke of a caged bird that could not sing an entire song. It would sing a bit of this or a trill of that, but never an entire melody. The owner covered the cage and placed the bird where it could listen to the one song it was to sing. In the dark, it tried and tried again and again to sing the song until it was learned, and it broke into perfect melody. When the bird was brought into the light it could forever sing the song perfectly.
Often it is during the darkest and most difficult times in life that we learn the most beautiful music. It is music that we perfect and then carry with us for the rest of our lives. The power of music is transformative in so many ways and I wanted to share this gift with others to use as a tool for self-healing as it had helped me. Fortunately, the staff at Coffee Creek understood and embraced my vision and the Music Theory classes were born.
When I first came to Coffee Creek, I couldn’t walk down the corridor with my head up. I looked no one in the face. Years of abuse had taken its toll—I had lost all self-worth and lived in constant fear. Today I am a confident, capable and accomplished woman. Toastmasters had a huge role in helping me realize the woman I am today.
I first heard of Toastmasters International as a young child for my father belonged to a local club. It was such a part of the community that he had his picture posted in the town’s newspaper announcing his election win as President of the club. This was at a time before women had the same opportunity to participate and it was a male-only organization.
When the notice came out that Toastmasters was coming to Coffee Creek in the summer of 2012 I was immediately interested. I knew the opportunities my father had been granted and experienced due to his involvement years before. I wanted to see what it would offer to me now.
I never could have imagined then all the skills I would gain. As I began to set individual goals for myself and club goals working with other members, I began to see growth in effective communication, interpersonal communication, and leadership I didn’t realize I had the ability to achieve.
My seven and a half years in Toastmasters has taught me how to work with others productively and allowed me to accept and utilize the positive feedback to better myself as a team member and as an individual. These skills have carried over to all aspects of my life; professional as well as personal. My self-esteem has increased and I’m more at ease in front of others and more comfortable in a leadership role.
Personally, I never thought I would be able to achieve the goal of Distinguished Toastmaster (DTM) and I recognize that without the aide and encouragement of our club’s outside volunteers it wouldn’t have been possible. When we accomplish such goals in life it’s easy for some to say “I did it!” but in reality we achieve successes with help along the way. I am grateful for all those who worked with me.
I’ve had the privilege in my time in Toastmasters to hold four different offices (Vice President Public Relations, Vice President Membership, President & Area Director) as well as club coach. The office I felt most humbled to fill was that of President, following in my father’s footsteps. If he were here today, I know he would be proud.