Learning English – More Than Words Can Express

By Michael Cudemo

My wife asked me to assist her this past weekend at a volunteer event in West Chester supporting the Global Celebration Luncheon for the Volunteer English Program, or VEP for short.  My job was simple.  Please video the two student speakers who were giving talks about learning English as their second language.  Point the camera, hit record and don’t mess up!  It turned out to be one of the best experiences of my year.  It was genuine, inspiring, emotional and uplifting.  And, it made me feel a bit ashamed of myself.

As an American, I take so many things for granted.  Our country is very large, but the English language is a common link across all 50 states.  I take for granted my ability to order food, ask about a medication, enjoy a movie, or simply ask for directions.  And before my video camera were two very bright, vibrant women sharing their experiences with a joyful sense of accomplishment.  Americans can be a jaded and cynical lot.  These two genuinely grateful students cut me to the quick, and provided me with a much needed attitude check.

The first student was from China.  She learned English in school and felt prepared to come to America to succeed.  Upon arrival, she immediately learned that she was ill-prepared for her new environment.  It is one thing to read the definition of courage in the dictionary, and quite another to visually see the embodiment of courage in a polite smiling human being.  This woman in front of me had the courage of a lion.  She reached out to an unknown organization and said:  “I need help!”  She was calm, confident and full of promise.  And then she said something simple and poignant:  “VEP changed my life!”  You could feel the impact.  These were not perfunctory words for her speech.  They were moving and emotional.  The student was giving back of herself.  Her tutor’s eyes were welling up with genuine pride at his student’s accomplishments.

The second student was from Columbia.  Her speech was like a warm hug.  She beamed as she talked about how she could now participate in her child’s education.  She was no longer ashamed to order meat at the food store and ask questions of her child’s doctor.  She was an accountant, but she spoke with an orator’s words as her encouragement to other students lifted the room.  She thanked her tutor for inspiring her to get past her many difficulties.  It was the most intimate thank you in a public setting that I had ever witnessed.  The priceless gift of a tutor’s time was repaid with the most heartfelt phrase: “a thousand times thank you!”

There is an expression:  “no one learns more than the teacher!”  I observed a room full of volunteer tutors and motivated students this past weekend.  I saw teachers who were constantly learning and students who were constantly teaching by example.  A full heart results when one truly gives of themselves.  An open mind can rise above any fear to ask for help.  I experienced a small community of hope this weekend.  I left with great inspiration from students who said:  “Yes I can!”  And, as a final note, the next time your spouse asks you to volunteer your time on a weekend – say thank you!

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Help

By Kathryn Cudemo

My mother asked me if I could donate some time to the Volunteer English Program located in West Chester to take pictures for their Global Luncheon on Saturday, November 15, 2014.  I love taking pictures and work for free as long as cake is involved so this sounded good to me.  As I watched the tutors and students pour in with their food offerings, I knew I was going to do this event a terrible disservice.  How do you capture joy in a photo?  How do you capture shy, tentative behavior that is overcome with pride and accomplishment?  What does gratitude look like?  People who were once strangers are now fast friends.  They are now a team working together, one for the betterment of the other and everyone gaining in the process.  This can only be experienced; it cannot be seen.  A camera can try, but will never be able to fully capture the atmosphere in that room.  Have you ever tried to capture a stunning sunset in black and white?

This was not my first effort as a volunteer.  My family participates in the Angel Project through our local YMCA where you choose a child or a family and purchase their Christmas gifts.  I have the best memories of going through stores with my family buying those gifts.  It’s the best part of Christmas morning wondering if they had opened our gifts yet.  Did we make them happy?   Do they know someone cares?

My sister, Sara, and I worked for Habitat for Humanity in Coatesville when we were in high school.  We organized files, helped with data entry and packed up and labeled boxes when the office was relocating.  After the relocation was completed, and after Sara had completed her 40 hours for her project, she stayed on and volunteered weekends in the office for most of her freshman year.  She came home with heartbreaking stories about families who were denied housing because they made $75 a year too much.  There were also the wonderful stories that give you goose bumps about families who are told the building on their first home has begun.

The Global Luncheon was such a beautiful occasion that it made me think back to my very first effort as a volunteer.  When I was about eight years old, I began asking my mother if I could volunteer at our local SPCA.  She said I was too young.  I picked up the pace on the nagging.  By the time I was ten years old I had my mother on the telephone with the SPCA offering my services.  They had just raised their minimum age to 16 years, but suggested that I could “help” if my parents wanted to volunteer.    The next fundraiser was a wine tasting event.  The SPCA did not think this would be an appropriate charity event for a ten year old.  I disagreed.  You don’t have to drink it to sell it.  I was in!

“Help” is a four letter word.  Not when someone is asking for it, but when a child is offering it.  I always wanted to help and as parents know, all mundane, ordinary, ho-hum tasks can turn into hours of torment and chaos when a small child gets involved.  October, 2001 at the Dilworthtown Inn in West Chester, Pennsylvania was the venue for my first volunteer experience.  Volunteers were all given aprons with huge front pockets filled with packaged dog bones selling for $5 and $10.  Guests would use their dog bones as money for all purchases of food and wine.  Volunteers were told to wander around and make sure everyone had dog bones.  Game on!

I was given my own apron with the presumption that I would stay close to my parents, but I work best alone.  I hit that crowd like a kamikaze pilot.  It was like taking candy from a baby.  Everywhere I turned there were more “customers” and soon I had to return to the cashier to get more bones and turn over the green backs that were weighing me down.  I had to do this several times.  Time went quickly and soon the afternoon was over.  I was exhausted.  Little legs had to work double time to cover all the territory.

I hadn’t seen my parents all afternoon.  As I was turning over my last haul of cash, my father came up to me looking a bit irritated and even more perplexed.  He had not sold any bones at all and neither had my mother.  Everyone they encountered appeared to have all the bones they needed.  Then, my father discovered why he had been so unsuccessful.  Minutes before I brought in my last pile of cash, my father spotted a man about to pay for a glass of wine but had no dog bones left.  My father seized the moment and offered to sell the man the necessary dog treats.  The man hesitated and looked around.  Then he said, “I’ve been buying bones all day from a little girl.  She’s the only kid here.  She made me promise not to buy from anyone else.”  The man then wandered off to find me.  Loyalty.  It’s a beautiful thing.

Hence, my father’s irritation.  He had wasted an entire afternoon trying to help the SPCA only to discover that he wasn’t needed.  I had it covered.  They tried to keep me out.  Ageism is an awful thing – at any age.

On the ride home I explained that I had approached everyone by asking, “Do you want the $5 or $10 bag?”  Not one person turned me down.  It had not even occurred to me to ask if they wanted bones; just how many.  I then locked in all my loyal customers with a simple request.  You have my back and I’ll have yours.  I had no strategy.  I wasn’t trying to beat anyone.  I certainly wasn’t trying to make my parents feel bad.  I just wanted to “help.”

A desire to lend a hand, offer support and take a few pictures brought me to this special event for the Volunteer English Program.  “Doing for others” makes me feel good about myself.  I walk a little taller.  I sleep a little sounder.  I truly believe it makes my hair shinier.  So coming here today was for me and how it would make me feel.   I was in deep thought about how I could move closer to that dessert table and maybe grab one of those brownies when no one was looking.  I was certain when all these people got a look at the bounty on that table there would be a stampede for the good stuff and the injustice of not getting just one of those brownies was a serious concern.  Then I heard these two amazing speeches given by students expressing such deep gratitude.  This organization has so inspired them that they are willing to stand in front of a room full of strangers and say things like, “A thousand thanks yous” and “You’ve changed my life.” It’s truly very powerful being a witness to so much appreciation.  When was the last time someone thanked you for changing their life?  And if that’s not enough of a reason to get involved, let me remind you, they have cake.

Kathryn Cudemo is a graduate of Temple University Fox Business School.  She lives in Northern Liberties and works in Center City Philadelphia for a digital media marketing company.  She never met a cake she didn’t like and is available for volunteer events where cake consumption is not monitored.