Little Toasters at Vaughn Elementary: choosing an emotion and drawing a character to represent it. From front and clockwise: Grace Wehmeier, Maddy Miller, group leader Victoria Beeber, Jezzie Riley, Maris Johnson, Sydney Tucker. Photo by Sara Thompson, KP News.

What difference can a weekly group activity make in the lives of grade school girls? Little Toasters, a program now in each Peninsula School District elementary school, offers a resoundingly positive answer.

Seven years ago, an intern completing her master’s of social work training at Children’s Home Society (CHS) decided to establish a group for girls at Evergreen Elementary as her thesis project. She wanted a program that would build confidence and give girls experience in public speaking. She dubbed it Little Toasters, an homage to the better-known Toastmasters.

It was a success, but when she left, it ended. Two years later, in 2011, a family support worker at CHS named Debbie Fisher revived the program. Four girls joined the weekly meeting.

Word of the program’s success spread and this year it is active at every elementary school in the Peninsula School District, with 59 girls participating.

Exuberance filled the room on a recent Thursday afternoon at Vaughn Elementary. Eight girls, all engaged, talkative and unperturbed by the presence of a KP News reporter, joined in the planned activities.

Jezzie Riley, now a seventh-grader at KPMS, joined Little Toasters in the fourth and fifth grades. She now returns to Vaughn Elementary each week as a big buddy. “Little Toasters really helped me,” she said. “I had to lead the Pledge of Allegiance in front of the whole school when I was at Vaughn and it would have been really hard if I hadn’t been in Little Toasters. Now I feel comfortable speaking in front of people.”

Fisher and fellow family support worker Victoria Beeber described the program in detail.

Girls sign up each fall, usually after being recommended by their school counselors. They meet once a week for an hour and a half after school. Each session has a theme, running a wide gamut from business to college to empowerment to spring. There are now six staff members to run afternoon programs in eight schools.

Almost without being aware that they are speaking in public, the girls are pulled into a series of speaking opportunities. First, of course, a snack. They all share their highs and lows. Everyone is given an opportunity to speak although it is fine if they choose to be silent.

There is a craft project each week related to the theme of the day. While working on their projects, the girls discuss the word of the day. “The girls are so engaged in their project that they don’t even realize they are speaking in public,” said Beeber.

This is followed by the “Um Game.” All the participants answer a question without saying um or ah. “It’s important, though,” said Fisher, “that the first um doesn’t count!”

Finally, the girls are all asked to write a short speech about the theme topic. They then read the speech to the group.

The weekly program has had a real impact. Teachers report that the girls speak up for themselves, have better eye contact and participate more in classroom activities. “The speaking experience translates into improvements in reading and writing, too,” said Fisher.

Fisher highlighted two particular successes. One student who was painfully shy when she started is now a part of a music group that performed at Disneyland. And the Lions Club this year nominated Little Toaster Grace Nesbit, an Evergreen 10-year-old, as Citizen of the Year.

“We keep getting requests to start programs at other schools who hear about Little Toasters,” said Fisher. Jud Morris, the director of CHS, said, “I would like to see Little Toasters expand to other school districts in Washington.”

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