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WEST CHESTER — For people trying to learn the English language, it can sometimes prove to be extremely difficult.
The Volunteer English Program (VEP), however, has spent the past 30 years in Chester County teaching English, for free, to thousands of hard-working, adult immigrants and refugees.
“We are a nonprofit and offer free, one-to-one English language tutoring to immigrants and refugees,” said Terri Potrako, executive director of VEP. “Our primary job is to welcome immigrants and refugees that want to learn English and then the other significant part of our work is to develop community-volunteer tutors. We are the only organization in the county who are exclusively devoted to one-to-one English language. It’s all we do.”
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As Potrako pointed out, they don’t have to be new to the country either to take advantage of the program.
“(We have) people who have not been born in the United States who have either come here many years ago and realized they need to learn English in order for them to gain some financial independence or to help their children grow and go through the education process,” Potrako said. “We also have people who arrived four or five days ago and they come in by word of mouth from family or friends and certainly church people refer them to us. They know that English is essential for them to reestablish themselves here in the community.”
Not only is the program free, but all the books for the tutors and the students are also free and there is no set time limit for the students to learn.
“The beauty of the program is that it’s student-focused and student-goal-oriented,” Potrako said. “Whatever (the student’s) mission is or whatever their objective is, to learn English is what the tutor works on with them. Our students are, on average, with us between 18 months and four or five years.”
The only qualifications someone needs to have to take part in the program is to have been born outside of the United States, over the age of 18 and either work or live in Chester County.
“Our age range right now over our students is from 18 to about 85,” Potrako said.
Over the life of the program, which got its start in the basement of the Calvary Lutheran Church, it has served thousands.
The volunteers have also seen dozens of different nationalities as well, with 30 different languages spoken and students from 42 different countries.
At the moment, they have almost 250 students, which means the program will match the students with 250 volunteer tutors.
“The challenge and commitment they make is extraordinary,” Potrako said. “They meet three hours a week so each individual pair meet for a total of about 144 hours a year of exclusive, one-to-one instruction.”
Outside of teaching English, the tutors also have their family lives and careers.
“It’s very difficult to learn a language at all and English is an extremely difficult language,” Potrako said. “Many of our tutors work. We may tutor after work or tutor on the weekends. Our tutors may meet in the morning before going to the office. Likewise, our students, who are 62 percent employed, find time to learn and study.”
And just like with the flexibility of the time, there is also flexibility with the location. The tutor-student pairs can meet anywhere they’d like — at home, in a park and in almost every community in Chester County.
The VEP celebrated its 30-year anniversary Thursday night with a celebration at the Chester County Historical Society, complete with a catered dinner and live music from Open Source Jazz and the Greater Overbrook String Band.
“It’s a huge milestone, especially for a nonprofit,” Potrako said. “Someone said to me it’s pretty amazing that is has been uninterrupted and consistent. Our board members have volunteered through thick and thin when resources are thick and thin and our volunteer tutors have really sustained this organization.”