Success Story: Toastmasters Classes in Texas Prisons

Date Posted: 4/14/2016

Leading by example, First UMC, Houston member Jim Arnold has revamped the Toastmasters curriculum to allow inmates in almost a dozen prisons to develop servant leadership and communication skills.
Fact: On average, approximately 60% of inmates return to prison after their release.
Fact:  Out of the 672 inmates in 2014 that completed the basic 10 speeches in the Toastmaster program (led by First UMC Houston member Jim Arnold), only 16% have become repeat offenders. 
Fact: As of March 1, 2016, 1,000 inmates had completed the 10 basic speeches while 150 of this group had done 20-30 speeches.
Looking back, businessman and longtime Methodist Jim Arnold can see God’s hand at work in his life and the lives of hundreds of prison inmates he has since touched.
“At age 45, I signed up for a Toastmasters program to overcome my shyness,” shares Jim, “because I was too scared to even open my mouth in a Bible study.” Adds Jim, “The program so dramatically changed my life for the better, I knew it would do the same for the guys I was mentoring in prison at the time.”  
Jim’s hunch was dramatically proven just a few years later after he formed a nonprofit organization called Skills for Life, and began implementing a communication skills program inside the prison walls. Thanks to the encouragement of several dozen chaplains and the support of eight other mentors, Jim has helped over 1,000 inmates adopt the values of Dignity, Courtesy, Professionalism and Fun.  Restorative Justice Ministry Chair Rev. Mark Pickett is one of Jim’s greatest fans. “Jim has built a great ministry that is shared in several amazing stories and videos on the website
One of his favorite heart-tugging stories features Michael who entered prison a dozen years ago unable to read or write. “Michael prayed to get into the program for a year because there was a long waiting list and, at age 47, he felt unable to carry on a conversation with his mom,” shares Jim.  “Michael gave his 32nd speech in January 2010.  That will carry him the rest of his life.”
According to Jim, the Toastmaster clubs are wildly successful primarily because the inmates witness profound changes in their friends and they want to be a part of it.  “Maria’s story is also powerful,” he adds. “As a girlfriend of a gang member, she had atrocious language and a body covered with cigarette burns.  She became president of the club and after seven months she stood in front of the club and told the women they would never hear her curse again.”
Under Jim’s tutelage, mentor Jessica Sarpu, who attends First UMC, Houston downtown campus, facilitates the training with female inmates in Dayton, Texas.  “I have been involved with human trafficking ministries involving strip clubs and prostitution for over a year when I learned that Jim needed a female volunteer to start Toastmasters in a women’s prison. I gave it some thought and felt led to do that to get a new perspective on related ministries I had been pursuing,” she says. “I started by accompanying Jim to the men’s prison and I was so impressed to see the professional environment of the group and see them running it themselves, almost like a board meeting.”
Jessica and Jim worked with the warden to start the program at Plane State Prison and she looks forward to it every week even though it is a one-hour drive each way on Wednesday nights. “I see how much the ladies grow through this and know it makes such a difference in the inmates’ lives throughout Texas.  I admire Jim for breaking ground in an area not many pursue.  Serving God as a mentor in prison was his initial calling, and now Jim has devoted his career to make an even more profound difference in the lives of inmates in Texas,” she adds. “Toastmasters communication skills training in prison is a huge commitment and he has not given up in spite of money challenges and volunteer shortages.  As a leader, he has made a way to find solutions and inspire others.”
Toastmasters rules say you can talk freely about your faith, if you avoid preaching or proselytizing.  “Inmates are required to memorize the definition and the logic behind the definition of servant leadership,” he explains, “plus one of their 10 speeches has to be on servant leadership. This class fosters a very positive environment. For example, over the years, I have heard only about six swear words in class -- and four of the inmates stood up in class and apologized.”
Great Potential: Next Steps
According to Jim, there are about 27 million citizens in Texas and 220,000 churches. There are 22,000 people who actually go into the prisons to work with the inmates, which means only 1% of our membership.  Some churches have only a few prison volunteers and some have no one. The exception is Christ UMC in Sugar Land, which has 50 volunteers going into the Carol Vance unit.
Jim’s next milestone is to discern how to get this program into the schools to teach students how to better communicate and thus exponentially boost their confidence and personal success.  “It would be much better to inspire character and good communication skills early in life rather than in prison,” he observes.  Public schools and prisons are both state sponsored.  While prisons offer courses in spiritual development and a program for all to develop their communication skills, the schools do not.
Jim has observed that prisons are eager to have this program. “Even though some of the units are making Toastmasters mandatory in the faith-based dorms, the prison administration doesn’t offer any assistance to make it happen or devote any funds to implement the communications training,” he says.
While money is a big factor of success, an even greater one is personnel. “All of the Skills for Life mentors have been recruited from within existing prison ministries,” he explains, “so therefore our number one need is for more volunteers. I would be thrilled to talk to any groups or churches about the process and potential to expand to earlier ages, and I would eagerly invite anyone to join me as an observer at Carol Vance Unit from 1:30-4pm on Thursdays or Jester 3 on Friday evenings between 5:30-8pm.”
Anyone with a desire to help bring this into schools or invest in the changing lives of inmates can contact the Texas Annual Conference Center for Missional Excellence at 713-521-9383.