On Saturday morning, 82-year-old Fran Okeson braved the rain to make her way to the Staten Island Community Television station in Arlington, near the North Shore — it was the first Saturday of the month, which meant she would take her place in front of the three cameras inside the studio, as she has for nearly 15 years, and welcome viewers to “Toastmasters in the Community,” a labor of love helmed by the veteran speech-giver and buoyed by a crew of enthusiastic volunteers.
Each Toastmaster — members of “No Limits,” a local chapter of the international organization aimed at grooming expert communicators — took turns giving seven-minute speeches on a topic of their choosing, each reflecting the personal lives and interests of the speakers. One member gave a lesson in fun historical facts about each letter of the alphabet; another, a math teacher, described how technology has revolutionized the classroom experience; Okeson herself gave a speech on the club’s past themed meetings, which have required members to comb the beach for artifacts or give speeches in animal costumes.
The speakers then underwent evaluations from their peers before enduring an impromptu lightning round where they spoke spontaneously on a topic chosen by Club President Okeson, who some addressed as “Madam Toastmaster.”
All the while members ping-ponged between their dual roles as fledgling speech-givers and volunteer studio hand. Footage from the meeting — split into two parts, an hour each — broadcast throughout Staten Island on Channel 34 at 7 p.m. that night.
“That’s the thing about the [community television],” said Okeson. “You don’t know who’s watching — maybe nobody’s watching, but you have to give it your best shot.”
A spirit of lightness colored the monthly event. During the lightning round, Okeson asked longtime member Paul Scharf of New Jersey how he would remember her when she died, to which he replied he would never forget how she’d made him wear a tie for Toastmasters events against his will.
“We learn by having fun,” explained Okeson, who has been in Toastmasters clubs for about 30 years. “If people aren’t having fun, they’re not going to be coming back and they’re not going to keep paying dues for the pleasure of being insulted.
“It’s like a big family,” she continued. “That’s how our clubs are.”
And alongside having fun, the club mandate is in the name — “No Limits,” reminding each member there is no limit to what they can accomplish.
The traditional Toastmasters curriculum has members move through ten projects of increasing difficulty, from icebreakers to researched speeches. The organization’s new educational curriculum, Pathways, lets members choose from ten unique programs such as presentation mastery and persuasive influence, each of which has its own series of projects. Some members elect to do both curriculum models.
The “No Limits” club, also known as Club 8011, is rooted in a community-minded mission — Okeseon initially founded the chapter in 1997 as a club for those with developmental disabilities or special needs. Since then the chapter has grown to include anyone and everyone.
Okeson was a caretaker for adults with disabilities when she began taking those in her care to Toastmasters meetings. They asked her why they couldn’t also give speeches. Okeson couldn’t think of any reason why they couldn’t — so they tried their hand at the lightning round portion, called “Table Topics,” and nailed it. The club, after becoming official in 1998, went on to host meetings at both a local senior center and a psychiatric center, which led to another moniker, “the club on wheels.”
“No Limits” may have outgrown its niche roots, but it maintains its mission, and its televised status makes it unique among Staten Island’s other two Toastmasters clubs.
Newcomers at other clubs don’t often have to face their fears in front of cameras, but at “No Limits” cameras are part of the package.
“There’s nobody to make eye contact with,” said John Coltrinari, 38, a high school math teacher whose first day at “No Limits” was Saturday. “When I’m teaching, I can read my students, gauge their responses — in front of the camera there’s no body language to read.”
But these are simply obstacles to overcome, and overcoming obstacles is par for the course at “No Limits.” After a few rounds, however, the cameras lose their intimidation.
“As you move along, you’re more relaxed up there,” said Scharf, who has been in “No Limits” for about a decade and in other Toastmasters clubs for 25 years. “Now I could care less if there’s ten cameras there.”