In Santa Barbara County today, youth and gang violence is one of the leading problems facing our neighborhoods. We all want the benefit of safe neighborhoods, but a solution is hard to find. As a wise individual once said, “If we’re not part of the solution, we are part of the problem,” and with this philosophy two women of our community along with a handful of ambitious teens from the Los Prietos Boys Camp took their passion for peace into action.
Los Prietos Boys Camp is a county juvenile detention facility that provides a local 4- to 6-month commitment option for delinquent males between the ages of 13 and 18. It is a camp centered on discipline, respect, and responsibility that involves a teaching program, strict rules and regulations, counseling, and mental health services, as well as vocational and work training. Many of our troubled youth are sent there, and some of them graduate as healed and changed people; however, as Toastmasters Club #5 member Donna Kall puts it, “they leave the safety of camp and come back into little or no support.” The efforts of the youth and camp are sometimes destroyed because graduates often go back to the same people and activities they were involved with prior to enrolment. As a Santa Barbara High School graduate and local resident, Billi Jo Starr saw this problem firsthand, and decided to get involved with the youth.
She proposed the idea that public speaking classes be taught at Los Prietos Boys Camp. She began teaching there, perpetuating the model of the Toastmasters Club that allowed for self-expression, self-confidence, and self-understanding, which permitted her students to be heard and discover themselves for the first time. Through the sharing of personal stories and weaknesses, the boys put themselves into a human context, realizing that what really is important is humanity itself, and within the confines of camp, began to break down the walls of rival gangs and work together.
Through their cooperation, the young men decided to come together and form the Toastmaster Soldiers, an activist, educational, and social club that they could join upon release from the camp. The boys, with the help of Billi Jo Starr, and Kaitlin Kall, a recent graduate of Wesleyan University (and daughter of Donna Kall, a fellow Toastmasters Club #5 member), worked hard and formed what is now an established nonprofit organization. On January 20, a fundraiser was held at Pierre LaFond Wine Bistro. A plethora of people gathered to hear this voice of the public that is often ostracized from our community, and to help support them in their future endeavors.
Several graduates of the program spoke about their stories and said that after they left Los Prietos the Toastmasters Soldiers helped them to find themselves, and encouraged them to change. Said most flawlessly by Toastmasters Soldier Yaskin: “Your voice is your most powerful tool…when you learn how to use it. Just your voice can change the world! All Cesar Chavez had was his voice. All Martin Luther King had was his voice. Look at the changes they made for this world. Toastmasters Soldiers want other young people to realize that they have a voice, too, and can make huge changes — just like they did.”
Toastmasters Soldiers is a group for people of all ages who seek peace in our neighborhoods. If you are interested in becoming a member, or would like to find out more about donations and support for the club, please contact Billi Jo Starr at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more general information, please see their Web site here.