Overcoming Obstacles, Step 2

The Match.  The connotation of “match-making” has always been a little bit magical, from back in the day when aunts and friends would thrust a couple into a lifelong marriage, to the tech-happy internet dating sites in today’s world.  We make a different type of match at the Volunteer English Program, not a romantic one, yet also based on compatibility.  Unlike the old-fashioned match-making, our match begins with a one-hour session to get things off on the right foot, followed by monthly updates, all to encourage success.

beaulieu-yuanAfter we train volunteers from the community to be English tutors, and after students undergo the intake process (see Overcoming Obstacles, Step 1), the VEP staff matches each student with a tutor who has the same time of availability and location.  We choose a tutor who might complement the student’s goals, interests, family structure, or ability level.  The “jigsaw puzzle” of matching available tutors to waiting students is part science, part art, as we attempt to align as many factors as possible for the pair, to promote longevity and compatibility.

And then comes the memorable moment when the two meet here in the VEP office.  Irma Pomales-Connors (VEP Program Director) or I sit with the pair for at least an hour, making introductions, planning lessons and reviewing materials, modeling a tutoring session, and practicing techniques that tutors learned in the Tutor Training Workshop.  The tutor and student leave here with goals and a game-plan.

Both student and tutor are a little bit nervous to meet that first time.  We quickly put everyone at ease, asking some questions, modeling the proper speaking speed to accommodate the student’s level.  The tutor leans in, completely engaged as the student tells of his/her challenges, obstacles, goals, and dreams — and I can see the student’s whole demeanor relax and open up.  Sometimes, the student’s relief is palpable with the realization that a volunteer wants to devote time to help them.  Someone who cares!

We provide books for the student and the tutor, walking through techniques for using them to teach reading, comprehension, writing, speaking and listening.  The tutor practices explaining words and concepts, correcting the student, and leading them through materials.  The two ask each other questions, clarify confusing points, and almost invariably, they laugh together at something for the first time.

After we have set goals, outlined lesson-plans, chosen the bi-weekly meeting place and times, and exchanged contact information, the match appointment is over.  The two will meet on their own somewhere in Chester County now, and we might only see the student occasionally.  The tutor will submit a monthly progress report of hours and activities, but the real magic, the countless moments of understanding, instruction, collaboration, all to open opportunities for that student, will happen without us.  All because of a magical match.

If you would like to experience this new kind of relationship in your life, call us.  We have 72 adult immigrants on the student waiting list; one might be the right student for you.

by Patty Rappazzo Morgioni, Program Coordinator


Runners, Walkers, Sponsors and Volunteers Support VEP


Although the skies looked threatening right before race time, 58 runners and walkers lined up at Market and Church Streets in West Chester for the 2nd Annual Volunteer English Program Family Fun 5K Run/2.5 Walk event on October 12, 2013.  As runners and walkers made their way through West Chester, the sun burst through and made it a beautiful race day. 

We would like to congratulate 5K runners John Matthews (18:46 time) who placed first in the Men’s group, Constance Franklin (22:32 time) who placed first in the Women’s group, and Stephen Heck (19:57 time) who placed first in the under 16 group. Stephen also qualified as second place finisher for the best overall Men’s Group.

In the 2.5K Walk category, over 28 individuals completed the beautiful downtown West Chester borough course in under 40 minutes. Jack McVety bested the 12 and under group with a time of 17:22, with older brother, Colin closing in at 17:14. IMG_3412

This year’s registrants ranged in age from 9 to 65+. All runners and walkers enjoyed refreshments, awards and fellowship at The United Methodist Church on High Street following the race.  We want to thank all the race sponsors, private donors, and the almost 100 participants who have contributed to our mission of providing free English tutoring to adult immigrants and refugees.   We look forward to seeing everyone again next year!

View the race results here!

View the complete photo album here!

by VEP Board Member Maureen Mackay, Partner, Gawthrop Greenwood PC


The Year of Maria

the year of maria

Maria’s letter is transcribed below for easier viewing.

Last year, Maria came to our office to ask for a tutor.  She was breathless and nervous, speaking with urgency as she explained that she had “waited long enough” to learn English.  She came from Mexico 16 years ago, she explained, but working full time to support herself and her child had demanded all of her time and energy.  It had always been her dream to improve her English and become a United States citizen, but her life was so busy.  Now she needed help.

After several months on our waiting list (due to our constant need for volunteers), Maria finally came back to our office to meet her tutor.  She couldn’t stop smiling!

This September, Maria’s tutor, Sandy, called to tell us that Maria had become a United States citizen, purchased a new home, and obtained a new job!  Maria wrote us the pictured letter, something she could not have done a year and a half ago.  It is transcribed below.

Congratulations to Maria!  May each year be full of growth and accomplishments.

“The Year of Maria”

“I had a dream to speak English better and become a U.S. citizen.  Three years ago I went to Volunteer English.  I took the test.  No one called.  In January, I called Volunteer English and said, “This is my year!”  I went back and took the test again.  Then Patty called me.  I’m so excited I have a tutor.

“My tutor and I met at a restaurant.  I will remember that day forever.  My tutor told me that “pero” is Spanish, in English I have to say “but.”  Oh boy!  My cheeks were red.  I said “I cannot say this bad word.”  A man at the next table said, “That is a normal word in English.”  We laughed a lot.  Now we meet at the library.  I spoke English with my tutor.  We read funny stories and laughed more.  I was not nervous to speak English any more.

“The librarian told me lawyers would come to the library.  They would help me. The lawyers were so nice to me.  I filled out the application.

“Wait… Wait… Wait… I practiced writing sentences for the citizenship test.  I studied the cards with the questions for the test.

“Finally in August I had my interview with immigration.  I have my dream.  I am U.S. Citizen.”


Reflecting on a Year of Tutoring

New tutors and students often wonder what the one-to-one tutoring model is really like.  I asked Bev Colestock, tutor, and her student Olga Andrade, a few questions about their relationship.  Bev has been tutoring Olga since May, 2012.

1.  Do you remember your first meeting?  What was it like?  How were you feeling?

Bev and Olga enjoying a tutoring session.

Bev and Olga enjoying a tutoring session.

Bev: I first met Olga in May 2012 at the VEP office. I was a new tutor and she was my first student so I was very excited to meet her. I wasn’t sure how much Olga could understand, so we pretty much spoke through Patty, the program coordinator. I remember I was very nervous because I am not a teacher and wondered if I would actually be able to help this girl. Olga was very sweet and Patty helped get us started by sharing ideas and suggestions from VEP resources. By the time I left that evening, I was feeling more confident and couldn’t wait to meet with Olga again and get to know her.

Olga: I was worried too because I was stuck in traffic and I had an appointment to meet. I was excited, but I was nervous too.  Bev seemed too serious and I didn’t know what to say. Fortunately, Patty was there and she conducted the meeting.

 2. How does that first meeting compare to recent meetings?  How have things improved?  How has your relationship grown?

Bev: Olga and I started out meeting at the Chester County Library in Exton twice a week. Olga and I made a connection right away and are very comfortable with each other. Initially we had a more structured format. We chose stories or news articles to read and discuss. We began making a list of words that Olga had trouble pronouncing and added to it. Many times we would end our meeting with Olga repeating these words over and over. As time went on and we got to know each other better our lessons focused on Olga’s goals at the time: which were writing her resume, moving into a new apartment, explaining something to her car mechanic, etc. Now we meet at my home on Monday & Wednesday evenings and I look forward to her coming. Our relationship has grown from Tutor/Student into a very good friendship that I will always treasure. We spend a lot of time just talking about everything – each other’s families, American and Colombian customs and culture, what we did last weekend, our jobs, etc.

Olga:  Of course we received advice and options from VEP but it was a new experience for both of us as we developed the class. At the beginning we followed a book and as time passed, we worked on my resume, a job interview, appointments, health insurance, etc. I can say I have found in Bev not only a great tutor but also a friend who has helped me to improve my English and feel more confident, and who has helped me and my husband to understand more about this culture and its customs.

 3.  Did something funny ever happen during your tutoring sessions?

Olga: I have always had trouble with my pronunciation. So I remember that many funny situations have been related to my pronunciation. I want to say something but my mouth says something different. However I remember a funny situation where Bev couldn’t stop laughing. It happened when my husband and I moved from Devon to West Chester. I wanted to write in the “Inspection List” that the microwave had a dent but I didn’t know how to write that.  So I used the Google translate and the sentence I wrote was “the microwave has a stroke in the right side”.

Bev:  Olga and I do laugh a lot. I explained why I was laughing and we both ended up laughing about it!

 4.  Olga, what has been the most difficult or challenging part of learning English for you?  How has the one-to-one tutoring model addressed this?

Olga: The most difficult part of learning English has been the pronunciation. Sometimes it seems impossible for me to pronounce a word or make a sound. But at the end after I repeat the word hundreds of times I am able to pronounce it correctly. Of course this always happens with Bev’s help. We have a list with the words that I can’t pronounce easily, so every class we study these words and I have to repeat them many times during the class. Also, Bev always corrects my mistakes while I am talking.

 5.  Bev, what has been your biggest challenge as a tutor?  What surprises did you find along the way?

Bev: Olga has made it very easy for me to be a tutor. She is smart, educated and extremely motivated. I work full time so I was a little concerned about having time to prepare lessons. Lucky for me, Olga is always prepared. She keeps a notebook and writes down questions or phrases that she hears or anything that comes to mind so we can discuss it the next time we meet. Olga is an excellent writer and usually writes a journal about what she did over the weekend. I read it or she reads it to me and that leads into a conversation where she practices her pronunciation. I would say the biggest challenge I have faced is trying to explain why we sometimes say something a certain way in English that doesn’t make sense or is an exception to the rule. My son was taking a Spanish class in college and Olga was helping him one night when she was at my house. What surprised me was she was having the same problem trying to explain to him why things are said a certain way in Spanish, but she didn’t know why.

 6.  Olga, can you measure your growth at all?  What are you able to do now that you couldn’t do before you came to VEP?

Olga: I can say that my English has improved over time. Of course I am aware that I have to continue working on it because it takes time. However, when I began to work with Bev I had some knowledge about grammar, but my biggest problem was when I wanted to talk. I was only able to say some sentences but keeping a conversation was almost impossible for me. Building whole sentences in my mind while I was talking was too hard. Now I am able to keep a conversation, I am able to understand many people (not all of course). Also I am able to follow a movie or a TV program using the subtitles, and I am able to understand the lyrics to some songs and it makes me so happy!

Editor’s note:  If you can see yourself as a student or a tutor with the Volunteer English Program, give us a call at 610-918-8222, or visit us at www.volunteerenglish.org.


iGive Dog Days Sweepstakes

iGive Dog Days Sweepstakes.

Use iGive to donate to VEP everytime you shop.

First you download the free iGive button on your computer and select VEP as your benefit organization.  iGive connects to many popular online shopping websites which you may already use.  When you shop at these stores, iGive automatically gives a portion of your purchase to the Volunteer English Program.  It is easy, and it does not raise the price of your purchase.

Words from The Betsy Hawkes Memorial Award Winner

At the 2012 Annual Spring Fundraising Breakfast this past June, the Volunteer English Program once more presented the Besty Hawkes Memorial Award. This award honors a person who deeply embodies the principles of VEP and who has greatly served the agency over the years. It is named in memory of a very special supporter of VEP. Betsy’s husband Bob was a special guest at the event, during which he presented the award.

This year’s recipient truly exemplifies the purpose and meaning of the Volunteer English Program. If you know VEP, you probably have known Carol Klauss, who is a former long-time director, staff member, tutor, and devoted advocate. In this blog post, we are fortunate to be able to reprint Carol’s moving speech from the June 1 breakfast. Her words, below, convey the essense of the program. Congratulations to Carol, and thank you for all you continue to do!

“Thank you for this tribute! It is special to me because it honors Betsy Hawkes, a dear friend and someone for whom I had great admiration. Often, in decision making situations, I would ask myself, “What would Betsy do?” She was wise, intelligent, fun and kind. She and I shared a strong compassion for the well-being of immigrants and their families. So indeed, this is a very meaningful award!

“Thank you for this tribute! It is special to me because it honors Betsy Hawkes, a dear friend and someone for whom I had great admiration. Often, in decision making situations, I would ask myself, “What would Betsy do?” She was wise, intelligent, fun and kind. She and I shared a strong compassion for the well-being of immigrants and their families. So indeed, this is a very meaningful award!

“In 1990 I was hired as VEPs first full-time Executive Director. As the only employee, I was also the Program Coordinator, Tutor Trainer, Student Coordinator, Curriculum Developer, Bookkeeper and Office Manager.

“VEP had space in an attic office in Frazer where the overhead was low, but so were the ceilings. Even at a slight 5’2”, I would hit my head almost every time I stood up from my desk chair. But, on a total annual program budget of $18,000 who could complain about free space.

“It was from that space that VEP began to grow and so did I. Since then I’ve had quite an education. I’ve learned to look at common concepts through a different lens, not just an American lens.

“One of those concepts is personal perspective. Meeting immigrants new to the U.S. taught me the importance of respecting and appreciating different personal perspectives. For example: in the late 1990s, thousands of people fled their native Kosovo because of the tumultuous political conflicts. Many came here to Chester County. I vividly recall sitting in the VEP office with a middle age man, Artan and his wife, Merita, both looking worn and weary. They came to VEP looking for an English tutor for Merita. I addressed my question about goal setting to Artan since his English was the better of the two and asked, “What does Merita see herself doing one year from now or five years from now?” There was a silent moment as Artan’s face hardened and with sadness and a bit of anger in his voice he answered, “You don’t understand. In our country we’ve only ever taken life one day at a time.” Artan and Merita’s perspective on goal setting was quite different from mine.

“The second concept is sacrifice. From our immigrant population I’ve learned about the sacrifices people will make to secure a better life, if not for themselves, for their children. Early in my career I met Han Jing and her husband Yie. They were both surgeons in China where although the hours were long and the pay was low, they pursued their professions with pride. Nevertheless, they longed for the American Dream for their children. So, after an arduous journey coming to the U.S., one-by-one, the family was finally reunited and they all eventually became citizens. Han Jing and Jie spent the remainder of their working years employed at Burger King and with the U.S. Postal Service while their three children went to public school and excelled. Today those children, graduates of Harvard and Penn, are living the American Dream because of their parents’ sacrifices.

“I’d like to add that Han Jin recently wrote and published this book, My Life Story, a memoir chronicling her life from childhood to present day. She worked every day of her adult life, not retiring until age 78. In her book, time and again, she credits her English tutor with being responsible for helping her fulfill her American Dream.

“And lastly, because of VEP, I can view gratitude through a global lens. Through my vast contacts with immigrants, I have been reminded, over and over, of how blessed I am to have been born in the U.S. I am continually grateful for, as Longfellow calls it, my “chance of birth”.

“Working for VEP has been my career, its mission my passion. Being honored with the Betsy Hawkes Award for doing what I love is as good as it gets. THANK YOU!”