Bill Cirone, Santa Barbara County Superintendent of Schools

There are heroes everywhere in this community and sometimes they emerge from unexpected places. Take Toastmasters, for example.

Toastmasters International was formed in 1924 to help people become better public speakers and in turn, better leaders and communicators. Currently there are 11,700 clubs in 92 countries.

Billi Jo Starr is part of Club #5, which was founded in 1929 as one of the original five founding clubs in the world. That club serves Santa Maria, Lompoc and Santa Barbara.

Starr began a youth leadership committee that helps set up Toastmasters Youth Leadership Programs at local schools throughout our county, and after-school programs as well.

Maybe most significantly, Starr created the Youth Leadership Program at the Los Prietos Boys Camp and its educational arm, Los Robles High School, where she works with incarcerated youth.

Ask her what she does and her answer is simple: “I am a change agent for children.” And so she is.

Starr believes in helping young people find their voice. In Toastmasters Youth Leadership this happens through speaking, sharing stories, listening, evaluating each other, and leading through chairmanship roles.

The group offers mentorship, career and educational counseling, and a positive presence after release from camp. Toastmasters works with each released young man to reduce the risk of recidivism and make sure they are on task.

Toastmasters Soldiers provides a support network through positive influence and mutual encouragement. It is a countywide effort, with members from Santa Barbara, Santa Maria, and Lompoc. Ages span from teens to mid-60s.

It is also an educational group. The premise is that communication and listening are essential elements to a more peaceful county and the group is dedicated to sharing skills with other youth groups in the community as well.

Finally, the group is doing its part to combat misunderstanding and intolerance. Telling individual stories, one at a time, helps combat the harmful and untrue stereotypes that encircle youth offenders. The goal is to create a more compassionate, nuanced justice system.

Said “Andy,” one of the students involved in the program at the camp: “I feel like I have found a family. I am an only child. At any time I can pull out my cell phone and call one of the soldiers and ask for help and positive influences. I get a family now.”

Said “Rey,” a former student at the camp: “Everyone wants to know how to fix this problem [of youth and gang violence]. Toastmasters Soldiers is a solution. We want to be proactive to prevent violence and use our voices to start spreading understanding of each other, instead of fighting each other.”

Starr explained the process: “We act as facilitators, life coaches, mentors, champions, and cheerleaders. We interact while participants are in the program at Camp. Upon graduation, and exit from Camp, we provide aftercare support services that involve connecting graduates to the resources available in their communities. This group of graduates also speaks publicly to youth and community members about breaking down the stereotypes that encompass juvenile offenders,” she explained.

Her mission is simple: “We return power to the individual. We offer a supportive environment that creates value and confidence within the individual members… We treat them with love and respect, seeing the potential underneath all the other things, staying out of judgment, having faith in them and knowing that anyone’s life can shift in a better direction in an instant, or a year, or however long it takes,” she said.

“We believe in them to make that change for the better. We have a saying: ‘Everyone is like popcorn, they pop when they are ready,’” she said. “My goal is that they succeed in life in a way that is fitting for them and who they really are.”

The success rate at Los Robles High School is a great source of pride for the many staff members, both from the Juvenile Court and Community School program of the County Education Office, and from the staff of the Probation Department. This past year we graduated 64 young men, whose lives were changed for the better. Over the past five years, we’ve graduated 124 young men. In all the years prior to that time only three students graduated from the program with a degree, which shows how far we have come.

A great deal of hard work on the part of a great many people contributed to that success, from the Probation staff, the teaching staff, the administrators, and the community organizations that provide support and scholarships to keep the momentum going.

There is no magic wand we can wave that will solve the issues of gangs and juvenile crime. Every young person is different, with a different set of hurdles and challenges. But it’s clear that the Toastmasters Soldiers program, and the work of Billi Jo Starr, is one important element that is making a real difference in the lives of those most in need. I salute their efforts and their results.