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Viva la dulce “Vita”

Vita Education Services offers many a path to a better life


Just a little more than a year ago 29-year-old Igor Kots fled his war-torn Ukraine. He is one of many Ukrainians to recently find refuge in Bucks County.

Kots was studying land management at a university in his native country. He spoke little English before arriving here.

That has changed now that he is taking part in a literacy program offered by Vita Education Services. Kots lives in Warminster and attends English as a Second Language (ESL) classes at Vita headquarters at 8 E. Court St. in Doylestown.

“The teachers help me with my speaking skills, communicating skills and writing,” he said. He currently has a job at Amazon.

With the help of a Vita tutor he is building his vocabulary and learning phrases he hopes will lead to more opportunities.

Will he return to Ukraine after the war? “I don’t know,” he said tentatively and with a little sadness. His parents are living here now but he has other family and friends in Ukraine. “I don’t know,” he repeated. “Everybody here is so friendly.”

Kots is both typical and atypical of those who take advantage of Vita’s free classes in an effort to improve their language skills and ultimately their lives.

The Ukrainian newcomers are the latest group to arrive in Bucks County, according to Mercedes Anderson, Vita’s executive director. They came on the heels of an influx of refugees from Afghanistan, and before that people of many cultures have settled here seeking better lives.

Their stories are varied, but their goals are similar.

A new citizen’s “happiest day”

The search for that better life continues for Sekou Kamara, who was born in Liberia. He just became an American citizen.

“That was the happiest day of my life,” said Kamara in strong, proud English revealing a smile behind his words.

He was talking about the ceremony where he recited the oath of allegiance and received his certificate of naturalization. He is a student in the Vita literacy program — classes that allowed him to speak in English those words that basically mean he has found a new home.

Kamara, 38, lives in Philadelphia, but attends literacy classes in Bucks County. He has lived in this country for two years, he said, and has learned so much since he started his classes a year ago.

Kamara spoke “only a little English” in Liberia, the West African country that was founded by freed American slaves. During the country’s latest civil war, he escaped to neighboring Guinea before coming to America. He now works for Amazon in New Jersey.

Earning a pandemic GED

For more than 50 years, Vita has also reached out to Americans who have fallen behind in education due to poverty or other circumstances.

Kasandra Yanes had to drop out of high school in the 10th grade. Her father had been deported, her mother was disabled and she also was responsible for a younger brother, she said.

“I learned it was just too difficult to go to school, hold a full-time job and care for my family.” Yanes explained.

Now, this 24-year-old who lives in Croydon and has a 5-year-old daughter, is headed to Bucks County Community College, on track to become a dental technician. Earning her GED (graduate equivalency degree) at Vita through virtual courses during the COVID-19 pandemic downtime made that possible.

A confident and determined young woman, her gratitude is boundless. “Absolutely all of the teachers I had were super-thorough and very helpful,” she said. Yanes is now also working full-time for an Amazon-affiliated delivery service.

Vita by the numbers

“Vita has served between 800 and 1,200 people a year,” said Anderson. “Vita provides educational programs that help individuals gain skills that enhance their ability to deal with real-life situations, meet their personal goals and become more self-determining and self- sufficient,” she said.

In the fiscal year ending in June, Vita served 863 adults, 45 youths and 46 families through its free literacy, ESL, decision-making and career preparation classes, Anderson said.

It aided 96 Ukrainian refugees in collaboration with Regeneration Church in Fairless Hills and the Bucks County CareerLink; served 142 adults in 15 GED and Pre-GED in reading, writing and math classes taught by professional staff.

Since 1971, Vita’s education programs have aided more than 65,000 people seeking to improve their lives through education. The pandemic years were difficult, Anderson said, but Vita turned to virtual learning programs to reach students in their homes. Classes again are thriving at sites in Bensalem, Bristol, Doylestown, Fairless Hills and Warminster. Online classes are also available.

Anderson said, “About 45 percent of students are Caucasian, 11 percent are Black, 32 percent Latinx or Hispanic and 8 percent are Asian or Asian American. The program is funded by the federal Department of Education with monies distributed through the state and with donations from the public.”

Programs include adult basic education, GED/HiSET, basic skills tutoring, transitional English, reading and writing for work and career training. (HiSET is similar to GED, which offers computer testing only. HiSET also requires a paper test.)

“We also encourage personal growth and lifelong learning,” Anderson noted.

Teach the mother, teach the family

Tina Ruckh is a professional teacher employed by Vita in its Family Literacy program. It is based on the principle that if you teach the mother, you’re teaching an entire family. “We tell the mother she is the child’s first teacher,” she explained.

The program involves not only English language learning but also offers parenting tips. Ruckh said, “We give the moms the tools to get more involved in their child’s education. We remove barriers that would interfere with that.”

She said, “In class, we teach reading skills. We work on language, we sing together — they love that — and we also offer take-home activities for older children. The program is open to those with infants to 8-year-olds and moms are eligible to stay in the program for four years. It is amazing to see the families’ progress.”

“Best job in the whole world”

Joseph Thomas is also a professional teacher working for Vita, but on a different level. He teaches High School Equivalency and Communication for Work, courses designed to ease students’ move into the workforce.

“I have the best job in the whole world. I really love it,” Thomas said. “That’s because my students are very motivated to learn. The students are all so different. They come from all over the world — Ukraine, Russia, Mexico, the South American countries. They’re adults. Some are very timid at first. I love to see them blossom.”

Thomas, who teaches at the Bristol site, said he has found it very effective to teach a brief class and then do breakout sessions where the students work in small groups.

“They talk. They get to know each other. They help each other. It works,” he said. “I teach at night because most of them have jobs or families to care for. They come here tired, but as they learn I see the enthusiasm on their faces.”

Another Vita program, Decisions for Change (DFC) is designed for adults in the county’s criminal justice system. Serving inmates as well as those on probation and parole, it uses decision-making as the context for cognitive skills building. DFCs basic goals are to increase critical thinking and problem-solving and decrease impulsiveness and anti-social behavior.

Anderson said study data has shown significant differences in violations and probation outcomes between those who completed and those who did not complete the DFC course. “The training helps them to become positive, crime-free members of the community,” she said.

This article has been supported by a grant from Foundations Community Partnership.

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