Class of 2014

graduation

Last night my youngest child graduated from High School!  It was one of those life moments I will never forget: seeing my “baby” shake hands with the superintendent and turn her tassel on her mortarboard.  She has learned so much, worked so hard, and now embarks on her next adventures of college and beyond.

The occasion is imprinted in my memory and my heart, yet it was even more special for me in my role as program coordinator here at the Volunteer English Program.  Because seated among the red- and yellow-gowned graduates with my daughter were many children of VEP students and other immigrants.  Those parents cried in the audience along with me as they witnessed the event.

I was impressed by what this graduation must mean to them. Some parents might have had minimal schooling in their native country.  Others who were educated may have left home to offer their family a better life here in the United States. In that moment, watching their first child accept a high school diploma in the United States, part of their dreams must have come true, their sacrifices justified.   I saw their families embracing, shedding tears, and even screaming with delight after the ceremony as they celebrated.

I value this milestone in my motherhood even more as a result.  And I am proud that I live in a community which supports adult ESL education, in which volunteers tutor fellow-parents who want what we all want: to give our children a better life.

Congratulations to the Class of 2014 and to ALL of the parents who helped their children succeed.

by Patty Rappazzo Morgioni, VEP Program Coordinator

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Wisdom from The 2014 Betsy Hawkes Award Winner

VEP-132Shannon Almquist is an inspiration.  She’s one of those women you could listen to all day, who has met so many fascinating people in her life, and who always gives back to her community and her world.  We are fortunate that she is a long-time VEP tutor who has taught five students in our program over the years, in addition to many more she has hosted in her home with her husband Roy, who was pastor at Calvary Lutheran Church.  She is also an Educational Consultant who has trained tutors here at VEP and all over the globe.

At our recent “Help VEP Bloom” spring fundraiser, Shannon was the recipient of the Betsy Hawkes Award, presented by Bob Hawkes, VEP Sponsor, friend, and husband of the late Betsy Hawkes.  Her moving speech follows.  Enjoy!

Many, if not most, non profit organizations and charities are the brainchild of one individual. In the case of Volunteer English, it was the vision of June Hamilton to enlist her fellow members of Calvary Lutheran Church in West Chester to aid recent immigrants in learning English, so they could be fully integrated into their chosen communities. Our early materials were Laubach books and curricular materials from the Chester County Library, ones created for missionaries to use in their work in distant places.

For an organization to survive, flourish, and grow it must transcend its initial stage. The Volunteer English Program now has almost 200 tutors and is led by professionals. These professionals test each student, determine with them goals and level of English. They train the tutors and match them with appropriate students…it’s come a long way from the “mom and pop” origins. They provide educationally appropriate materials, from newspapers to driver manuals to citizenship application guides. The Board consists of local business and professional leaders who understand how to support and guide the organization and aid in the funding necessary for VEP to survive and thrive.

As for my journey, I first had Shan Shan as a student. She had been a Russian professor in China, along with her husband. When the Cultural Revolution determined educated people to be “the enemy,” they and their 2 children were sent to the countryside to be “re-educated,” and their children (along with an entire generation) were denied education. Somewhere Shan Shan heard that in America you could be a life long learner, and she decided she would apply for immigration here and hope to be able to bring her husband and two grown (20 and 22) children to this country. The American dream…that you can be a life long learner. How lucky we are to be able to share and participate in that dream.

Since then I have had Marcella from Mexico, Andrea from Hungary, and Toranj and Nasrin from Iran. Nasrin is here this evening with her husband Reza, and she became an American citizen last year. Her boys are at local schools, and the family is thriving. Nasrin is employed by the Chester County Intermediate Unit as a substitute secondary math teacher. She has become a dear friend.

So that’s the story…that we change lives one by one. And in the process, we tutors are the ones who are blessed by the experience, by the inspiration of these courageous people, and by the new friendships.”

Below is a “Wordle” of Shannon’s speech.

Wordle: Betsy Hawkes Award Winner Speech

 

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

Overcoming Obstacles, Step 1

The first step is an act of bravery.  It starts with a phone call or a visit to our office.  What we call the “student intake” is the process an adult immigrant goes through to become a student with VEP.

Some people phone the office to ask for help, struggling with the increased communication challenge of the telephone.  We might get three hang-up calls in a row, as the caller summons the nerve to speak.  Our program director, Irma, speaks fluent Spanish, and I know a few words, yet we try first to use English.  We help the speaker of Chinese, Russian, Spanish, Korean, to convey their message, asking them “Do you want to be a student?”  “Do you want to learn English?”  “Come here on Thursday, January five?”

Others just show up at our door, wide-eyed, apologetic, and visibly nervous, because using the phone is too hard.  Many people tell us later, sometimes years later, that the smiling person opening that door gave them courage and hope.  We help immediately if possible, or we write an appointment card and point to the calendar.  photo

Intake.  The word sounds so clinical, but the process is warm and human.  We sit with the man or woman and collect a wide array of information. We give a reading test and obtain a writing sample, if the student is capable.  But more importantly, we listen to the student, who finds a way to tell us their life story.  They open up to us, so desperate for help, when they realize that someone truly hears them and sees them.

Some tell of leaving family behind – parents, brothers and sisters…  One mother came to us, her 3 yr. old daughter in tow, but she said she has three older children.  “They are with my parents…,” she said, and I thought it was fortunate she has a support network here, but she continued, “…in Morocco.”

Many tell of their advanced degrees and education, their jobs as nurses and psychologists, business people and teachers, but here they make a living washing dishes and cutting lawns.  Others, barely literate in their native language, have only a few years of elementary school.  Each has a spark, a belief that speaking English will help them do better.

Others are refugees from war-torn countries, mothers escaping abusive homes, parents who must feed children and provide a path to success for them.   “My mother got me out of the country.  She saved my life,” chokes a woman, now a mother herself.  It is 15 years later, but the pain has not ebbed.

All of them talk about their dreams: to help their children who are in school, to support their aging parents, to become a citizen, to go to college, or just to talk to doctors and be able to shop for survival.

We ask a lot of questions about work life and income, family composition and goals, and by the time the interview is over, we know a lot more than their score on a reading test.  We know another member of our local community, a parent of a child in our schools, a worker at stores we frequent.  They leave our office with a renewed spirit, knowing that someone in the United States, someone in Chester County, Pennsylvania, cares enough to help them.  And that just might propel them through another few weeks until we find them a tutor.

by Patty Rappazzo Morgioni, VEP Program Coordinator

The Person Next to You

Last night I attended a Christmas concert at a local church, and in the handbell choir I saw the bright, shining face of one of our tutors, ringing away.  It struck me that I continually run into VEP tutors and students in various spots around Chester County.Way-Gonzalez

Yet, when I mention the Volunteer English Program, people often ask, “What’s that?” and inquire about our work.  This is seldom a short interchange, as people are quite inspired and intrigued.  As our Executive Director Terri Potrako says, we are “Chester County’s best kept secret.”  (We are working on being better known!)   We do not have an advertising budget; our word is spread by active volunteers and by vital community partners like libraries, churches, community organizations, and the media.

VEP is actually everywhere around us.  I go to the gym, and I am exercising next to several of our tutors.  I think to myself, ‘that tutor is busy like I am, squeezing in a work-out before heading to the office, yet he gives his time to help someone.’  I push my grocery cart down the aisles of Shop Rite and spot tutors shopping for their family meals.  My neighbor’s father was a volunteer with VEP for years.  At the DMV, in the bookstore, at a restaurant… literally each week, I run into members of the VEP family.  

Wouldn’t you like to know who our tutors are?  If you could spot them, like on a page of Where’s Waldo, you might be amazed at the reach and depth of volunteerism represented.  It could be the person in the cubicle next to you at work, or riding the elevator with you, or dropping off her child at the same day care center.  And THAT is often our best advertising:  tutors tell acquaintances, neighbors, co-workers, friends and family about their transforming experience as a VEP volunteer.  

We do have almost 50 students waiting for a tutor, and we have a Tutor Training Workshop coming up in January (click here for details). If our story appeals to you, please consider signing up for training and working with an adult who needs to learn English.  If you are already a tutor, please spread the word with the person next to you, and recruit someone you know.  

Our tutors and students (approximately 170) meet together all over the community in libraries, cafe’s, etc…  They are out there, every day, probably somewhere very close to you, quietly carrying out our mission of teaching English to adult immigrants and refugees.  And it is an inspiring and gratifying prospect to me, to know I live in a community where such an act is taking place, 170 times, twice per week.  Won’t you make it 171?

by Patty Rappazzo Morgioni, VEP Program Coordinator

A Global Thanksgiving

Colorful kim-bap from Korea, Eggplant with Ground Beef from Morocco, fragrant steamed dumplings from Japan, delicate hot tamales wrapped in banana leaves from Guatemala, Zimbabwean greens and salsa, Mexican empanadas…  No, it was not a new elegant cosmopolitan restaurant in Philadelphia, but the Annual Tutor/Student reception of the Volunteer English Program.

tutor student reception 13 049 (3872x2592)As Thanksgiving rounds the corner, it was the perfect time for the staff and board of the Volunteer English Program to express our deep gratitude to the 170+ active student/tutor pairs, who work so hard and meet twice each week in order to accomplish the goals and dreams of adult immigrant English language learners.

tutor student reception 13 050 (2592x3872)Almost 100 tutors, students, friends, family and board members brought delicious pot-luck dishes from their native country or family to the reception on Saturday, November 16.  The foods listed above are just a small sample of the diverse international offerings, representing our students from all over the world.

Honoring the contributions of our dedicated tutors and the accomplishments of our determined students, the annual reception gives the pairs who regularly meet one-to-one in the community a chance to join together.   Two students, Isabel Francisco, from Mexico, and Natalya Kuzovleva, from Russia, bravely spoke to the audience about their experiences with the Volunteer English Program.  Honored Tutor-of-the-Year, Christina VandePol, also spoke of her commitment to ESL education and the special needs and struggles of immigrant adults.

VandePol was honored with a citation from PA State Senator Andrew Dinniman.  Also presented with a citation but unable to attend the reception was VEP Board Member Sue Heist,  a long-time champion of VEP, instrumental in mission and logo development and a notable fundraiser for the organization.

Thank you, to all of our tutors, students, and friends.  The mission of the Volunteer English Program is accomplished through your generosity and time. tutor student reception 13 011 (3872x2592)

by Patty Rappazzo Morgioni, program coordinator

You Have Something to Teach

As our next tutor training workshop approaches, I am reflecting on the quick learning curve our volunteer tutors.  Each one makes a huge difference in the life of an adult immigrant by teaching English and American culture.  When the new volunteers first attend the tutor training workshop, they are often apprehensive and unsure whether they will be capable of the job.  Most of our tutors are not teachers by career, and they wonder if they will be qualified to really help.   tutor training 2012 2

Every tutor really makes a difference.  After they leave the 3-night training, they are armed with everything they need to begin tutoring.  When they come to our office to meet their student, we spend an hour here introducing them and going over goals, books and lesson guidelines. They are ready!

Brand new tutors immediately boost their student’s confidence and share cultural information, simply by being willing to help.  They are sharing the language they speak every day.  And very quickly, tutors develop expertise, as evidenced in the monthly tutor updates sent to us.  

One tutor, Sue, suggested to her intermediate level student to read a book that is just below her tested reading level, to practice comprehension.  She found it improved her student’s confidence, showed her how much she already can read, and challenged her to tackle the next level.  Just by spending time with the student, this tutor discovered an approach that worked.

Another tutor, Carol, discovered a great use for texting with her brand new student. Scheduling meetings with her beginning level student via email and phone had left them both frustrated and disheartened.  Most of us resort immediately to these because of their expediency.  However, the messages were too complicated for her student.  Her simple text —  “Meeting on Tuesday from 10 am to 11:30am.  Yes or no?”  —  was easily understood by her student.  Carol got her confirmation, and her student didn’t have to worry about tripping over her words on the phone or in an email.

Tutor Maggie realized her student was not putting the “s” on verbs that needed it, incorrectly saying “He walk.” and “She look pretty.”  She focuses on this difficult-to-learn aspect of our language a little bit each meeting.

Each and every one of our tutors has the natural ability to teach someone.  And after training and meetings with VEP staff, they develop skills and an arsenal of techniques.

You have something to teach, too!  Won’t you consider joining us for the next tutor training workshop, to be held Sept. 12, 16, and 19, from 6 to 9 p.m., at Calvary Lutheran Church in West Chester.  Click here for more information about the training and to register.

by Program Coordinator Patty Rappazzo-Morgioni