Q&A: Volunteer English Program’s Terri Potrako

The executive director shares her passion for helping others, especially immigrants.

Throughout her career, West Chester’s Terri Potrako has dedicated herself to the nonprofit sector. For the past five years, she’s served as the executive director of the Volunteer English Program in Chester County, where tutors help non-English speakers on their fluency. Her hope is that such work fosters greater success and cultural integration for immigrants around the region.

MLT: Why is the Volunteer English Program so important to Chester County?

TP: Since the 2010 census, Chester County has exploded with a diverse population. We have over 8,000 reported people who don’t speak English well. It’s important they learn English to reduce their isolation and potential exploitation. They’re very vulnerable individuals. Without understanding those speaking around them, they can’t call emergency services or access domestic services or healthcare—fundamental areas we take for granted.

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MLT: How does VEP work?

TP: We schedule people for one-on-one interviews with our program staff in our West Chester office; we also mobilize if the individual doesn’t have a car or access to transportation. Our volunteers undergo nine-hour training workshops. They conduct a first lesson plan and establish a time to meet [people] in the community. All of our work is non-classroom.

MLT: Where do your adult learners come from?

TP: We have 50 countries and 11 regions of the world represented, and 37 different languages spoken. Right now, Spanish is common, but it’s not our only language. A third of our students come from the Pacific Rim—Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean are common. We also have people from Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.

MLT: What sparked your interest in this work?

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TP: I’m the third-generation child of an immigrant family that, fortunately, came from Ireland. But not all immigrant families were welcomed back in the day. Social justice and advocacy was part of my training, and it’s what I aspire to.

MLT: Did your background in healthcare and social work have any influence?

TP: After 27 years as a nursing administrator in geriatrics, what I found is that my senior residents, caregivers and nurses were often immigrants. Having English, I understood the words critical to making sure that medications and the directions from the physicians were correct, and I also had the compassion and understanding of my Korean and German patients.

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