Gideon’s example helps speaker find her voice

  • August 26, 2023

Stealing a line from The Beach Boys, Deborah Koko said she spent her vacation before Grade 11 “pickin’ up good vibrations.”

The Assumption Catholic High School student from Windsor, Ont., received $5,000 for winning the Northeast and Great Lakes region of the 2023 Optimist International Oratorical World Championships for public speaking in July.

She also earned the right to compete at St. Louis University in Missouri after prevailing at the regional finals in St. Thomas, Ont., in April. She captured $2,500 at the qualifier.

All told the 16-year-old’s gift of the gab netted her $7,500 this year.

Akin to many seasoned presenters, Koko is apprehensive before she performs. But when she begins, she quickly locates her voice and poise.

“Once I get on the stage and the words start flowing, I think the confidence starts to build up,” said Koko. “As I’m saying the words, I’m seeing the audience’s reaction. They’re nodding, and that provides a sense of encouragement for me. Usually, when I begin speaking, I forget about the nervousness and (experience) the moment so I can say what I have to say. It is fun at the end.”

Seeds for Koko’s emerging talent as a communicator were first planted when she was a Grade 6 student. A teacher noticed the young girl’s talent as a wordsmith and encouraged her to continue writing poems and speeches. After a while she felt called to recite her words in front of the congregants of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, Throne of Grace. Her mother, Grace, is currently the senior pastor for this Pentecostal house of worship.

Koko also credits Jeremy Bracken, head coach of the Assumption Catholic High School debate team, as a key nurturer of her talent. He has provided advice and challenged Koko and her classmates to argue thought-provoking topics. One of the topics the team was asked to deliberate was the pros and cons of tourism. Koko said she never considered there being any possible downsides to this industry. She was empowered to improve her knowledge on this topic by researching different perspectives.

“That really opened my eyes to a lot more issues about the world that we only have a positive light or a negative light,” said Koko. “I got to see sides of things I never knew existed.”

Bracken also proved instrumental by introducing Koko to the Optimist International debate circuit.

At the competition in St. Louis, the Windsor native said the judges were impressed with her “passionate and sincere” speaking style and the novelty of the person she proclaimed as a great embodiment of optimism.

“I used the story of a man named Gideon from the Bible,” said Koko. “It is very easy to think of optimism as sunshine and rainbows. Gideon was a man who questioned things and doubted things. He was still able to find his optimism and save his people from a very large army.”

(As per Judges 7, through the grace of God, the prophet’s 300 soldiers prevailed over a mighty force of 135,000 Midianites).

Though entering the arena of public speaking is not as daunting as leading an army into battle, Koko encouraged people intimidated by this performance art to draw inspiration from Gideon and take a leap of faith.

“A lot of public speakers who are great today, there was a time where they were nervous, jittery or had stage fright,” said Koko. “The first step is to go up on that stage and saying what you have to say. Remember, it is not just about getting it done — it is about enjoying the process. Know that your message is important to share, and it is more than just about words: what you say can change someone’s life.”

Koko intends to continue expressing her thoughts and ideas through her written works and elocution. Delivering speeches for larger organizations and writing books with potential of being adapted into motion pictures or television series are two creative aspirations.

Starting in September, Koko will continue to develop her voice — and faith — at Assumption. Though not a Catholic, she said she cherishes this Christ-focused environment.

“I really like how God is at the centre of our education. I like the Masses we get to participate in and the songs we get to sing. Even though you might not fit into this denomination, it still does bring you closer to God. It is a very peaceful environment.”

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