Since 1986, the nonprofit Volunteer English Program has connected volunteers in Chester County with immigrants and refugees for free, one-to-one tutoring to empower these individuals through speaking, reading, writing, and cultural understanding.
Recently, VEP received a generous grant from the Brandywine Health Foundation that will help expand its outreach into the greater Coatesville area.
According to Terri Potrako, VEP’s Executive Director, the $7,000 grant will be used to replicate the “VEP without walls” model that was established in Phoenixville and helps make the program more accessible to some of the region’s most vulnerable individuals.
“It is a modified attempt to bring ‘VEP without walls’ out into the Coatesville community,” she said. “Instead of individual students having to come to our West Chester office for an intake interview assessment and tutor match, we are bringing that service out to the community.”
When there is a need for a student and tutor to get matched in the Coatesville area, for example, the new funding will allow a bilingual, Spanish-speaking staff member to split her time and mobilize efforts to move the services to where they’re needed.
“The staff member is not only a Spanish speaker, but she also lives in Coatesville, so she has a wonderful base of influence there,” said Potrako. “Also, we’re bringing training to the community locally in Coatesville and Phoenixville, so volunteers can get involved and we can attract people.”
Training consists of volunteer tutors committing to one of six tutor training workshops that are offered throughout the year. Workshops are for three days and for three hours each.
“Our customized training program has been built over the course of our history by educators, ESL trainers, and certified staff,” said Potrako. “We provide a free 75-page guide that is very comprehensive and informative, and a combination of research that has supported our practices for the past 30 years.”
The approximately 300 tutors currently in the program come from all walks of life: homemakers, teachers, healthcare professionals, lawyers, retirees, etc.
“Our tutors are the front line,” said Potrako. “These are the people who are actually conducting the one-to-one instruction. People who are new to our country would otherwise never be able to access that kind of person. Tutors themselves bring a wealth of information and personal background to the experience that would be either unobtainable or certainly not affordable for most people who are trying to re-establish themselves here.”
Once trained, tutors are matched with adult learners who may be either beginning or intermediate speakers, or those who need certification or re-certification in English for jobs in the workplace.
In the matching process, each tutor gets to view the needs of individuals on the waiting list, with decisions based initially on time availability and geographic location. Tutors meet with their students for two 90-minute sessions per week. VEP asks for at least a one year commitment from each tutor.
“Right now, we have 75 individuals who have gone through an intake and are waiting for a tutor,” said Potrako. “Almost a third of those are in Coatesville, and another 80 people are on our prospective list, waiting to get an interview with us. That’s the demand for tutors.”
VEP receives no state or federal funding, and is thus totally dependent on individual donations and grants from the likes of the Brandywine Health Foundation and the Springbank Foundation, and from organizations like the Rotary of Coatesville. This is its third year of receiving funding from the Brandywine Health Foundation, a commitment that has trained countless women and mothers who see the value of English proficiency as a way to learn about good nutrition, make doctor appointments, and make informed choices with respect to their health and that of their children.
Notably, the majority of those waiting to participate in VEP are women.
“The Brandywine Health Foundation is excited to continue our partnership with the Volunteer English Program with this most recent grant award,” said Dana M. Heiman, Senior Vice President of the Brandywine Health Foundation. “Their staff and volunteers provide an extraordinary life-changing service to individuals, which in turn makes our community healthier and stronger as a whole.”
Potrako would like to add more staff to coordinate and conduct trainings, but that all depends on the amount of funding VEP receives. She is, however, encouraged by the number of volunteers her program has attracted in the past year, especially in these politically divided times.
“People in our community have really responded to reaching out to us and becoming volunteers, despite the uncertainty of issues with immigration,” she said. “So, there are wonderful results in what has been a challenging year.”
Click here to learn more about the Volunteer English Program.