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TOASTMASTERS : Confident Club : Organization, with members from age 18 to 80 in Ventura County's 32 chapters, offers camaraderie while helping members improve communication and leadership skills.


If you are an older person seeking fun and self-improvement during this month of resolutions, consider joining Toastmasters International (TMI).

According to Stanley Stills, a spokesman at TMI world headquarters in Santa Ana, "a number of people over 55 turn to Toastmasters to acquire skills to improve or change their careers. They also join to enhance the transition and new opportunities of retirement."

Locally, several hundred members age 18 to 80 enjoy supportive camaraderie while improving their communication and leadership skills through public speaking. But TMI is more than a speech club. According to Jack Bethel, governor of the Conejo Valley area clubs, "it is especially good for older people. It boosts their self-esteem and sense of personal power."

Don Ensch, a citrus grower in Ventura, agreed. A past international director of TMI, Ensch is one of only 26 Accredited Toastmasters worldwide. During nearly 34 years as a member, Ensch has seen people learn to make presentations and lead meetings. "But," he emphasized, "self-confidence is the primary goal. There's something about public speaking that destroys inhibitions."

Dick Negus, 62, knows a lot about that. "I was incredibly shy. I'd blush if I talked to more than four people at once," Negus said. Eighteen months ago he joined his wife at Ojai's Topa Topa club. By completing 10 speeches outlined in the beginner's manual, Negus became a Competent Toastmaster, the first of three possible ranks. As an engineer, he now finds the advanced booklet on making technical presentations very useful.

Others, such as 69-year-old John Vigen, were more eager to join. "It was something I had wanted to do for a long time," he said, "but I was busy as a CPA and father of four." Since retiring four years ago, Vigen helped start Ventura's Singularly Speaking club and just ended his term as its president.

Finding challenges after retirement is important, Ensch said. "Toastmasters does this beautifully by providing tasks." The weekly meetings and assignments that must be prepared encourage routine and self-discipline, he said.

The 32 clubs in Ventura County offer a smorgasbord of activities to suit every taste and schedule. They meet weekly, biweekly or monthly. Early morning, noon and night you can find Toastmasters meeting in restaurants, public rooms, or at sponsoring military bases and corporations. The Humor and Drama club in Ventura satisfies most thespian urges. You can even "habla Espanol" at Oxnard's Los Amigos bilingual club. There are also singles groups. Others, such as Simi's club for realtors, cater to a specific business or interest. Members can also help with club newsletters and participate in regional speech contests.

Since 1924, when the first Toastmasters club was founded in a Santa Ana YMCA, the nonprofit educational organization has benefited more than 3 million men and women in 50 countries, including the Soviet Union. More than 160,000 members belong to 7,200 clubs worldwide. Even in Moscow, most foreign meetings are held in English, but materials are also printed in Spanish, French and Braille. The initial cost of $24 covers the beginner's manual, membership fees, and issues of The Toastmaster magazine for six months.

Toastmasters has been the beginning of something great for many seniors. Like former shy-guy Negus said, "the day I stop learning new skills is the day I die."


To learn how to start a Toastmasters club in Ventura County, call (805) 522-0468. For details about existing clubs in your area, consult the following list:

* Camarillo-Pt. Mugu (805) 486-6965

* Newbury Park-Thousand Oaks-Westlake Village (818) 880-5725

* Simi Valley-Moorpark (805) 522-6536

* Ojai-Ventura (805) 644-4410

* Oxnard-Santa Paula-Ventura (805) 656-2054

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