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Not for Profit: Enthusiast Reviving Toastmasters

Deniis Dussault. (Photo provided by Dennis Dussault)There’s something about a Toastmasters Club – maybe it’s the social setting, maybe it’s the goal of self-improvement, Dennis Dussault really can’t say – but he finds it so alluring that, he said, “I probably have been with it most of 25 years.”

As a young man, he joined a club at Lutheran University in Washington state. When he moved to St. Thomas, there were no fewer than three local clubs. He joined them all.

Lisa Wynne-Magnuson, who won a number of local pageant titles including Mrs. Virgin Islands 2011, and who currently operates the VI Etiquette and Leadership Institute, is also a Toastmasters fan. She says the organization builds confidence and promotes communication.

In the British Virgin Islands, government leaders routinely get training through Toastmasters, she said, adding that she’d like to see the program in USVI government circles as well as in schools. It teaches people that, “You don’t have to shout to get your point across.”

The first Toastmasters Club in the Virgin Islands was chartered in July 1979, Dussault said. That was club 4040U. Another was formed at the University of the Virgin Islands, and a third met at Coki Beach. But in 1995, Hurricane Marilyn killed the Coki club. The other two eventually dissolved.

“I think it’s been at least two years since there’s been an active club here, maybe closer to three,” he said.

That is about to change. Dussault said he needs a minimum of 20 members to charter a new club with Toastmasters International, and he’s already lined up more than that.

“Suddenly everybody wants a Toastmasters Club.”

The international non-profit organization traces its roots to a Young Men’s Christian Association in Santa Ana, Calif., where in 1924 an enterprising educator named Ralph C. Smedley began holding meetings to train young men in public speaking and leadership skills. Now headquartered in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., Toastmasters International claims 14,350 clubs in 122 countries and a global membership of 292,000, according to its website.

To be part of the worldwide organization, clubs must follow general guidelines, but they also have a good measure of autonomy. For instance, Dussault said groups he encountered on the mainland met once a week. In the Virgin Islands, meetings were held twice a month.

Lisa Wynne-Magnuson said Toastmasters builds confidence.Typically, a general business meeting tops the agenda. Next, there is a session of impromptu speaking, or Table Topics, in which the night’s “Topic Master” raises a subject and calls on someone to address the rest of the group on that topic. Topics may be “anything you can dream of,” Dussault said – from an item in the day’s newspaper to the color blue.

Then there’s an education section. A speaker – sometimes someone from another club – gives a prepared talk about some aspect of public speaking; perhaps about the choice of the most effective words or maybe about how a speaker can use his voice to inform and move an audience.

The heart of the program are the speeches prepared by members using the Toastmasters’ manual for guidelines. It outlines 10 types of speeches, each designed to help a person master a skill. The first is the icebreaker, in which a new member introduces himself to the group.

Finally, there is the formal evaluation. “You want some feedback,” Dussault said. In fact, constructive criticism in a nurturing environment is a key component of the whole program. The manual even has sections on how to be a good listener and how to give positive feedback.

For each speech, there will be a report from the timekeeper, from the “ah” counter, from the grammarian. There’s even a person assigned to evaluate the meeting itself.

These roles rotate among the members, Dussault explained, so at one meeting you may be the timekeeper and at the next, you may be the topic master. There’s a Toastmaster of the Evening, who acts as the host for the night, and there’s even a Toastmaster of Snacks who handles refreshments. Dussault said it’s a fun way of encouraging leadership qualities.

People interested in knowing more about the club are invited to attend a meeting.

“Guests are always welcome,” Dussault said. “There’s no fee for visitors” and they can even participate in the impromptu table topics session, if they want.

For those who join, there is a one-time introductory fee of $25 which covers the cost of the manual, he said. Dues for the new club have not been set, but he’s recommending $100 per year.

Meetings are planned for the second and fourth Wednesday of the month and will be held in the Fintrac building on the Waterfront in downtown Charlotte Amalie. The next meeting is scheduled for Feb. 12.

One important order of business will be deciding on a name for the new club. Dussault said three have been suggested: Toastmasters’ Toastmasters; Rock City Toastmasters; and Tropical Eloquence. The last was the name of the club at UVI; Dussault credited a leading V.I. toastmaster, Toya Andrew, with penning it.

More information is available by contacting Dussault at 1-340-693-2741.

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