Changing Winds: Toastmasters Club aims to improve communication skills of inmates

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson Ryan Beall, left, and Johnny Estes, inmates at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility listen to a speaker during the Changing Winds Toastmaster's Club Wednesday night. Estes's leader dog, Wheeler, is asleep on the floor.

A lack of communication skills is one factor that led Johnny Estes to where he is now — an inmate at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility.

Estes is serving time for second-degree robbery. He has served 10 years of a 14-year mandatory sentence, he said.

Prior to committing that crime, Estes said he was having marital problems and often argued over financial troubles.

Those problems centered around his inability to stay employed.

“I believe a lack of communication is why I couldn’t hold down a job,” Estes said.

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson Joan Johanson has been volunteering at the Toastmasters Club at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility for three years.

The Changing Winds Toastmasters Club aims to improve those communication skills that are oftentimes critical in society.

Estes said the Toastmasters Club helped to change his perspective.

“Instead of taking something from someone, you can express what you need and they might help you,” Estes said.

Estes was one of about 25 inmates who attended a Toastmasters Club meeting Wednesday night at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility.

He sat at a table with his leader dog, Wheeler. Inmates are only allowed to partake in the Leader Dog for the Blind program after logging more than a year of good behavior.

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson Heath Vanice, 40, an inmate at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility sits with his leader dog, Reyna, a yellow lab, during a Changing Winds Toastmaster's meeting Wednesday night. Vanice said the meetings have helped him communicate more effectively.

The leader dogs are trained in Fort Dodge and then in Rochester Hills, Michigan, before being adopted by someone who needs them.

The meetings feature a guest speaker, a motivational thought and a chance for inmates to give speeches.

At each meeting, an inmate chooses a word and throughout the duration of the meeting other inmates are to repeat that word in a sentence that makes sense.

This helps them to expand their vocabulary.

Heath Vanice has been in prison for more than 22 years.

He said before he began attending Toastmasters meetings, he had a fear of public speaking.

“Coming to Toastmasters Club has helped get me through that,” he said. “This has changed my thinking and it has taught me to listen.”

At the end of the meeting, listening skills are tested when the inmates are quizzed about what they heard.

Points are awarded to the best listeners.

Darius Crawley, another inmate, said the meetings help him stay positive.

“It helps bring out the inner person that, for the most part, we hide behind,” Crawley said. “It has helped me develop qualities to help me be a more positive person instead of keeping things bottled up.”

Joan Johanson has been volunteering at the Toastmasters Club for three years since the program began at the FDCF.

She said seeing the change in inmates is why she continues to attend.

“We had a guy, when he first came in here, he could hardly tell us his name,” Johanson said. “When he left, he was a contest speaker. He became confident.”

Thomas Bennett has spent 20 years behind bars.

He said the work put in at the Toastmasters Club can improve the lives of inmates if and when they get a second chance in society.

“People who do not choose to take any educational courses are 73 percent more likely to reoffend,” Bennett said.

Bennett advised the inmates to spend their time wisely.

“You’re in here 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said. “What do you do with your time?”

For many years Bennett did nothing with his time, he said. That was until his mother, who was suffering from breast cancer, visited him.

She questioned his character.

Since that time, Bennett has been busy getting involved in various educational opportunities available to him at the prison.

He suggested others do the same.

“By improving, you can become an asset,” he said. “You can become employable. You should be motivated to improve because if you’re not improving, you are just existing, not thriving.”

Jim Sayers, of Humboldt, is another volunteer. He said when he started attending meetings a few months ago, he thought the inmates would be learning from him, but the opposite has occurred.

“I thought I would come in and help them with my skills, but they have helped me,” he said. “Seeing their speaking skills and hearing their stories gives me motivation.”