What the nonprofit Volunteer English Program offers is unprecedented.
VEP connects volunteers with adult English Language Learners to provide free, one-on-one tutoring and cultural enrichment. The program, which serves those living or working in Chester County, supports all language speakers, and meets learners wherever they are – literally and figuratively – on the path toward literacy and proficiency, regardless of income or residency status.
A few years ago, VEP broke away from federal funding because it wasn’t aligning with its strategic, three-year plan. It’s now fully funded through philanthropy and corporate donations, meaning that Executive Director Terri Potrako and the Board of Directors have had to work as hard and creatively as ever to ensure VEP’s future.
One community partner VEP has befriended to help support its guiding principle to be welcoming, compassionate, understanding, and inspired in all of its work and interactions is 20/10 Solutions, a full-service advertising agency in West Chester.
Every year, Joe Warner, 20/10’s owner, and his staff of 12 “adopt” a nonprofit, for which they provide their services for the deepest of discounts. VEP is 20/10’s Nonprofit of the Year for 2017. As such, 20/10 recently helped VEP promote its recent, 31st annual fundraising dinner.
“Our business is relationship-driven,” said Sarah Reese, 20/10’s Vice President of Marketing and Client Services. “Everything is really about that sense of community, and how we all support each other. We are truly inspired by not only the hard-working team at VEP, but by the hundreds of volunteers who donate their time and talents to empower our Chester County community members by learning English and American culture. We are honored to be a part of VEP’s community team.”
At the dinner at The Desmond in Malvern, VEP honored Silvia Ramirez-Cubos, a former recipient of its tutoring. Ramirez-Cubos arrived in the U.S. less than 20 years ago, neither speaking nor understanding a word of English. Since then, she earned a teaching degree from Immaculata University, was awarded Outstanding Teacher of the Year at Head Start by the Chester County Intermediate Unit, and was the CCIU’s Employee of the Year in 2015.
When she recalled her struggles to those in attendance, there was nary a dry eye in the house.
“I’m always amazed by the courage that it requires for someone who is living in the United States to reach out for VEP services,” said Potrako. “For many, picking up a phone and conducting a conversation in another language is remarkable. I also admire the tenacity required by them to maintain jobs, raise families, navigate everyday lives, and still keep their appointments with their tutors.”
John Healey, a former VEP tutor, and his wife Sandra put it into perspective well.
“We’re from the U.K., and we moved here several years ago because of my job,” said John, a retired chemistry professional at GlaxoSmithKline. “We spoke English and even had this big, beautiful corporate umbrella surrounding us. But we still struggled to acclimate ourselves.
“I couldn’t imagine what that’s like for someone who doesn’t speak the language.”
Shirley Min – a producer for First, Delaware’s public media newsmagazine, on WHYY-TV – was the emcee for the event, and she talked about her mother, who emigrated from South Korea, and how she would’ve have benefitted from an organization like VEP if it existed when she arrived in America.
“My mother is 77 and came to the U.S. in the early ’60s,” said Min, who grew up in Philadelphia. “She didn’t know one word of English. Not even ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Growing up in Korea, she described herself as smart, outgoing, and popular. But when she got here, all of that, especially her self-confidence, dissipated. She was insecure, meek, and timid.
“I so wish this program had been around for my mother then. I wonder how things would’ve been different for her.”
Reese and her colleagues at 20/10 are happy to help spread the word about VEP and advance its mission.