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

 

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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

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.

 

Faces of the Volunteer English Program

You know how many words a picture is worth….  rubinger-wei

Check out our video of students and tutors on YouTube.  Thank you to our board member Michael P. Boyle, PhD, Associate Professor of Communications at West Chester University, for creating this for us to share the special relationships that are evident in each of these images.

 

Off to a Great Start

New tutor Joni Goldberg writes about her experience after the first few sessions with her student.
I approached VEP with excitement, not only to help someone learn English, but also to learn about their life in another part of the world that is so different from my own. I was just matched with Fatmata, a woman my age from Guinea who is at an intermediate level in English. Fatmata is fluent in French, Mandingo, and Susu which clearly shows she is naturally good at learning languages. She wants to get better at her English so she can begin to live more independently here. Her main goal is to get a job in one month.
Our first few classes went very well. I think we are a really good match. We initially met at the West Chester library but later decided Giant was a better meeting spot for us. We can talk louder and share music.
I always begin each session asking Fatmata if she has any questions. I find this helps shape our lesson based on her needs. For example, she mentioned her need to understand change better so that she can shop on her own. Guinea uses the Guinean Franc and there are no coins used for change. We had fun pretending I was buying things from her and she would count out my change.
Also, we tried out the language experience approach (learned in training). I let her pick a topic that she liked best from a list of topics. She told me about her favorite music and I wrote down everything she said. We then went over it sentence by sentence and she was able to explain her thoughts more clearly. I thought this activity went really well and will use it again.
Another lesson we enjoyed was reading the comics in the newspaper. This is surprisingly more difficult than I thought it would be. The use of play on words and idioms for humor can be confusing and even I found myself tongue-tied when trying to explain them. We found ourselves laughing even if we didn’t get the joke.
At one point I tried to help her start a resume. I saw that I overwhelmed her by it so I knew to hold off on this. I will wait a few more classes before we touch base on this again. As our classes continue, Fatmata is opening up a lot more about her family back in Guinea. She shows me pictures of her family and tells me about their traditions. I love hearing her stories and find this to be the most rewarding part of it all. I am really enjoying my time with Fatmata and always look forward to what new things we will be learning from each other. Thanks, VEP for the great match!