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As a little girl, Ishita Panwar resisted her father’s encouragement to try one of his passions: public speaking. But today, the 14-year-old runs a club she started for kids wanting to improve their public speaking skills.

Panwar grew up in Michigan before moving to Cherry Hill two years ago. In Michigan, she joined a local branch of Toastmasters International – an organization dedicated to improving speaking and leadership skills – where she developed a love for public speaking and its benefits.

“The older I got,” she says, “the more I realized how important this is and what a great skill this is to have.”

P2This realization came with her first public speaking recital, during which members of the Toastmasters club read their speeches to an audience. Pawnar chose to speak about dog adoption, because it was a topic close to her heart. When audience members came up to her after the speech to say they were now considering adopting, she realized her potential as a public speaker.

“It made me feel really powerful,” she says.

When she arrived in South Jersey at age 12 and realized there was no group dedicated to public speaking for young people, she immediately got to work. She filled out paperwork to join her local Toastmasters club, and she also created the Artists of Speech Gavel Club. The Gavel Club allows members of all ages to join, whereas a standard Toastmasters clubs only allow members 18 years or older.

“I created this club to help out my community and the people around me. I wanted to help people realize this is such an important skill to have and that it carries you through so much. It really makes you grow up and step up a little bit, and just kind of have fun,” Panwar says.

News of the club quickly spread through word of mouth, email and local news coverage.

Now, the 30-member club meets at the Camden County Voorhees Library twice each month. When a new member joins, he or she receives a booklet of 10 projects. Each project involves writing a speech, which the member will then read to the group and receive feedback on.

“You get better each time you present,” Panwar says.

Panwar’s favorite part of the critiquing process is hearing how many “ums” were said during the speech.

“When I first began, I used to say so many ‘uhs’ and so many ‘ums.’ I couldn’t finish a sentence without it,” she says. “Hearing over and over, ‘This is how many ums you got’ helped me get better and get rid of that habit.”

Now, Panwar says she sees much of herself in the members of her club, including her friend Sophia. Panwar says she pushed Sophia to join the club just as her father had pushed her to pursue public speaking. Of course, her friend was hesitant but quickly became an expert, says Panwar.

“She is so much better. I love the passion she’s put into this club so much that I’ve given her a higher position in the club. Now she’s one of our executive members, and she’s helping me run this.”

Watching members like Sophia change their perspective of public speaking and confidence in themselves is one of Panwar’s favorite things about the club.

“I’m very blessed to be able do this and notice how people change,” she says. “It’s such a great feeling to come into this and say, ‘You know what, I want people to get better, and I want people to improve and step up to the plate and be as confident as I feel.’”

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