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Kids learn public speaking skills in new club that's part of Jack and Jill of America

Jack and Jill is a nationwide organization founded by African-American moms.

Yatunde Familusi, 11, of Huntington, at The Suffolk

Yatunde Familusi, 11, of Huntington, at The Suffolk County Chapter of Jack and Jill semifinals of their inaugural Speech Contest. Photo Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Ariana Levin, 15, of Huntington Station, has an unusual way of memorizing speeches that she must present: She turns the words into lyrics and sings the tune to herself until she has it mastered.

Then she delivers her speech to the Suffolk County chapter of Jack and Jill of America’s new Gavel Club, which launched this school year to help children to practice public speaking.

“I’m very passionate about music,” says Ariana, a sophomore at Walt Whitman High School and president of the Gavel Club. So forgetting a speech isn’t her main concern. “My main thing is stuttering,” she says. But monthly rehearsals, presentations and competitions have taught her to take a moment to pause, she says. That way she avoids having an “um” or “uh” noted by one of the club members whose job it is to count them as each member presents a speech.

Gavel Clubs are a new initiative of the Eastern region of the Jack and Jill organization and are affiliated with the Toastmasters International public speaking program. Jack and Jill is a nationwide organization run by mothers that provides enrichment opportunities such as leadership development, financial literacy and volunteer service for kids ages 2 to 19. The organization was formed by a group of African-American mothers from Philadelphia in 1938 and now has 248 chapters, including separate chapters for Nassau and Suffolk counties.

“We are the professionals of the communities that we live in,” says Kathryn Simmons of Miller Place, a mom of three who is president of the Suffolk chapter and a trained public health scientist and business manager. “We are offering the children insight into our careers and building them up for success. The whole point of the organization is to build African-American leaders.”

Through the Long Island chapters, members have taken trips to Underground Railroad sites in Manhattan, the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., to “Aladdin” on Broadway and to the Long Island Aquarium in Riverhead. Kids have made sandwiches at homeless shelters, brought toys to children’s hospitals and partnered with organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club to bring programs to children who aren’t Jack and Jill members. Jack and Jill membership dues range from $500 and up per family, and new mothers must be sponsored by another mother who already is a member.

“I like that it gives young African-American children the chance to learn more about their culture and interact with other children who have the same goals as them. It is also important to know where you came from and know your background,” says Kinley Simmons, 11, a sixth grader at the Laurel Hill School in Setauket.

“We do lots of workshops and group activities to build our character and get us ready for the outside world,” says Chandler Perry, 17, of Glen Cove, a senior at Friends Academy in Locust Valley and a member of the Nassau chapter.

The Gavel Clubs are new ventures within Jack and Jill; Nassau County’s club is in its second year and Suffolk just started this school year. "It's important for our children to be able to enjoy public speaking," says Mondi Kumbula-Fraser, the Eastern regional director overseeing 59 Jack and Jill chapters on the East Coast. They'll use the skill in college admissions interviews, job interviews and in their professional lives, she says.

The kids gain confidence in an "open and caring environment," says Mecca Baker, a banking executive from Islip who chairs Suffolk's Gavel Club and has twin 10-year-old daughters, Regan and Brea. "It's all about support. We want them to keep doing this." On March 10, the Suffolk chapter held its final competition in the offices of the Suffolk County Legislature in Hauppauge. The theme of that competition was animals. 

For her speech, Kinley talked about pets and what they do for their owners. “The toughest part was the first time I had to get up on the stage and speak,” Kinley says. “I told myself this is only three to five minutes of my life and I only have three to five minutes to be the best I can be. I feel like this could really help me in my future. When I grow up, I want to be some big person, have a nice job.” She says she plans to be a surgeon.

Taylor Fernandez, 12, of North Babylon, who attends The Bridges Academy in West Islip, says writing his speech is the hardest part for him. His speech on animals focused on tigers. “One thing I like about them is they use camouflage to hunt,” he wrote. “They hide within grass stalks and wait for their prey. The grass stalks blur the outline of the tiger, so prey suspects nothing.”

He says he dons a suit and tie to give his competitive speeches and that he’s learned to project his voice and to move around the stage to emphasize what he has to say. “The easiest part is definitely delivering it because I have it all memorized, and it just flows out,” he says.

For information on getting involved in Jack and Jill on Long Island, visit jackandjillnassaucounty.com or jjsuffolkcounty.org.

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