Click here to read The Philadelphia Inquirer’s version of Edilson’s English language journey.
An interview with Edilson Almeida (student) and John Argeseanu (tutor)
by VEP Public Relations Volunteer, Bethany Hechinger
When he arrived in the United States from Minas Gerais, Brazil in 2002, Edilson
Almeida spoke only two words of English—“water” and “coffee.” Over the past
fifteen years, he’s learned a good deal of English on his own, picking up pieces
of the language here and there. He now owns his own housecleaning business,
which employs his wife, Agnes, and three others. Still, he struggles with
conversational English, which can lead to big misunderstandings between
himself and his clients.
Edilson tells of a friend who once spent five hours scrubbing a client’s floors until
they shined like new, only to discover that his friend had misinterpreted his
client’s instructions; the home owner had recently spent a lot of money to
“antique” his hardwood floors so they would look battered and worn. He had
asked them to avoid the newly painted floors, not to clean them. “That,” he says,
shaking his head. “That is why you need English.”
Not knowing English remains a barrier to fully participating in the often-elusive
American dream—and finding the time and money to learn English is a daily
struggle for many immigrants, whether they are recent arrivals or have been
living here for years.
“Many people, when they come here, they do not know English. Maybe they
were lawyers, or dentists, or accountants back in Brazil,” says Edilson, who is
now 44. Like many immigrants, Edilson came to the United States in search of a
better job to support his wife and children. Back home in Brazil, a poor economy
and high unemployment rate meant that even when he could find a job, it was
near impossible to hold onto it for more than a year or two.
In the past fifteen years, the economic situation has only continued to decline.
“But my friends, when they come here, they can find jobs in housecleaning or
construction or landscaping because they can go with another person who knows
English and learn the job within a week or two. And they can have a good life
A few years ago, in an effort to improve his English language skills, Edilson took
an ESL class at the local community college, but didn’t find the shared classroom
environment to be especially helpful. “In class, sometimes one person knew
more than another. It was hard for the teacher to help everyone.” When one of
his employees, an immigrant from Guatemala, introduced him to the Volunteer
English Program (VEP), it was a revelation.
What makes VEP so unique is its one-on-one approach. One tutor and one
student meet at the time and location of their choosing, with a long list of local
businesses, libraries, and religious organizations generously providing space for
learning. Edilson and his tutor, John Argeseanu, meet weekly after work, at a
coffee shop near Edilson’s home in Phoenixville. Edilson’s wife, Agnes, is also a
VEP student, and meets with another tutor at a different time.
“Lots of people work all day. For many people, these times—nights—are very
helpful. And John is never impatient. I can ask him something ten times, the
same question, and he is okay with that,” Edilson says.
“When it’s just my tutor and me, it’s better than a classroom. He knows exactly
what I need. He is more than my teacher—he is my friend now. We talk about my
life when I was a child, my farm back home, our food in Brazil, and many other
things. And when I say something wrong, he tells me what was wrong and how to
speak correctly. Also, it’s free—I could not believe that at first.”
Every year, free of charge, VEP delivers its personalized English language and
cultural immersion tutoring service to nearly 300 immigrants and refugee
students living and working across Chester County. A student seeking these
services on his or her own would spend about $10,000 a year. A few years ago,
the organization stopped receiving federal funding, so the nonprofit organization
is fully supported through philanthropy and corporate donations. Students are
encouraged to remain with VEP as long as is necessary until their specific,
individual goals are met, which can sometimes take several years.
VEP also trains about 100 new tutors each year. “I had been involved with a few
other volunteer organizations, but it seemed to be mostly just going to parties
and fundraisers,” explains John, age 32. But like many millennials, he wasn’t
satisfied with just donating money or raising awareness for a cause. “The things I
was doing were fun, but I was looking for something more fulfilling. Something
that could make more of an impact. I’ve always liked to travel—I’ve been to every
continent except Antarctica—so this seemed like a good way to engage with
people from other cultures while giving back to our community.”
John has worked with six students in the five years since he attended VEP’s
three-day tutor training workshop, which is offered several times throughout the
year. He is currently tutoring two students, both from Brazil, and also runs a
conversation group, which provides students the opportunity to practice their
conversational skills in a small group setting with other non-native speakers. The
group meets on Saturdays in the Phoenixville library.
John’s own parents immigrated to the United States from Romania 35 years ago.
“A program like this probably would have really helped my parents. They both
earned University degrees in Romania, so they knew some English when they
arrived. But learning from a textbook isn’t the same as something like this—you
don’t get the conversational skills that you really need to become fluent.”
To show his appreciation, Edilson has become one of VEP’s chief evangelists.
“Every time I turn around, Edilson is referring someone else to the program,”
says Donna Dello Buono, Program Outreach Coordinator for VEP. “He must
have sent close to a dozen students our way in the past year and a half. When
he begins a conversation with ‘I have this friend…’ I know a referral is coming.”
Despite the demanding schedule of cleaning houses and managing his own
business, Edilson also generously makes himself available on a regular basis to
accompany other Brazilians within his community when they arrive at VEP for
program intake interviews. “Edilson has probably donated about 10 hours of his
own time to translate for prospective students,” says Donna. “That’s about $400
worth of free translation services for VEP.”
“I’m glad that I can help a little bit,” Edilson says. “Before VEP, I had difficulty with
things like past and future tense that made it hard for other people to understand
me. I learned many words after starting this program. It has helped my wife and
me a lot, in our jobs and in our general lives. This has changed our lives a lot.”