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Maryland Moments: Toastmasters International changing lives through words

It is the same podium every time. The routine does not change much. Stand up, give a short speech, do not talk too long and try not to stutter. But like every Toastmaster, every time Toronda Jackson stands up there, in front of her peers, she is a little different.

(WBFF) -- It is the same podium every time.

The routine does not change much.

Stand up, give a short speech, do not talk too long and try not to stutter.

But like every Toastmaster, every time Toronda Jackson stands up there, in front of her peers, she is a little different.

“I know many can relate when I say that. That one choice we made has drastically changed our lives,” she said.

Toastmasters International is a club that pushes members to their limits, teaching them to be better speakers and more confident communicators.

Members include anyone from students to neighbors to business partners, to inmates at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women.

Choosing this form of expression-through words-is critical to these women. And for many, it is new.

On this night, Toronda is giving a speech called “Choices.”

“Like I said in my speech, I felt like I had no voice. Like I wasn’t being heard. So I tried every avenue until I could be heard,” said Toronda.

Toronda says she felt the only way she could express herself was through aggression.

But in 2007, her behavior knocked her down.

Toronda was part of a brawl involving nearly 50 people.

She was found guilty of first-degree assault.

“In the midst of all this fighting, an innocent man ended up getting stabbed,” she said.

That man was permanently paralyzed.

Toronda says she did not stab him. She does not know who did.

“I can’t say what else happened- as far as the commotion that was going on,” she said. “It just all happened so fast. All I can remember is in a split second my life changed.”

A split second that forever changed at least two lives.

For Toronda, it meant ten years spent in the system.

“Do I feel sorry for him? Of course. He didn’t deserve it,” she said, choking up. “There's not a day where I don't wish I could take that back.”

Fists used in place of words now in handcuffs.

Toronda cannot change the past. She can only focus on the present and the future.

Like many inmates, Toronda will someday leave this place and the Toastmasters group aims to prevent her from coming back by rejecting violence and embracing conversation.

Each week, three different inmates stand up in front of the other Toastmasters and deliver a speech.

It can be about anything an opinion, or a personal story.

It often reflects on where they have been and where they are going.

“It’s always rewarding. Probably what I enjoy the most-- the icebreakers,” said warden Margaret Chippendale. “When they give that first speech it is always about their life and what brought them to incarceration.”

And sometimes, it is about what motivates them to get out.

“Because I choose to focus on what matters the most,” said Toronda. “My freedom, my daughter. Me going home to be a productive citizen.”

Toastmasters is not limited to correctional facilities--- they help bring life skills to all types of communities.

But according to volunteers we spoke with, for inmates, Toastmasters often continues to be a hobby outside of prison.

And it often reflects lower re-incarceration rates.

Toronda will be eligible for parole next year.

If she is released her choices out there will reflect the lessons learned here, perhaps at these weekly meetings.

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