ESL Students are Eager to Learn About the United States

Jose and his class end the year by celebrating the students’ accomplishments
Judith celebrates with proud students and families

Vita’s English as a Second Language students come from all over the world. Some have college degrees, while others have not finished elementary school. What they all share is a desire to learn, and that goes beyond just learning to speak English.

This month, ESL teacher Judith Gelb introduced her students to Presidents’ Day, and found them eager to learn more. While many were able to recognize recent presidents (particularly Joe Biden, Donald Trump, and Barrack Obama), they were curious to hear about George Washington and especially Abraham Lincoln.

“We talked about the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation,” Judith said, “and they were really interested to learn about it, especially because we had talked about Martin Luther King Jr. Day last month.” Students are eager to learn about US history and culture, which are especially important to them now that they have made their homes in the United States.

Teacher Jose Garcia agrees that holidays provide a good learning opportunity. While the curriculum, “focuses on daily life, situations at work and at school, things like…apply[ing] for a job,” talking about holidays is a chance to vary the conversation. On President’s day, Jose said, he talked about the role of the presidency in the government. Afterward, he takes students through activities like a crossword with clues based on the lesson, or having them solve a puzzle like those on Wheel of Fortune.

Students care about their new home. “[Our students] watch and read the news,” Judith said. “It makes them want to understand more about our government and how it works.” Focusing on important figures in our country makes history come alive. Engaging students in lessons and discussions like these not only helps them speak English, but also to be more at home here in the United States.

Happy International Education Day from Vita!

January 24th was International Education Day, on which we celebrate the power of education and the impact it has on individuals and communities around the world.

At Vita, we believe that adult literacy is a fundamental right and a key to unlocking opportunities and breaking cycles of poverty. We are so grateful for the support of our community and the dedication of our volunteers and staff who work tirelessly to empower
adults through education. Thank you for helping us make a difference and for supporting adult literacy education! To contribute to Vita, click the links below to volunteer, donate, and support our mission!

Job Readiness Helps Returning Citizens Overcome New and Old Challenges

As 2023 begins, it’s a great time to think about fresh starts. Vita’s Jobs Readiness programs help returning citizens prepare for the difficulties of reentering the job market. Even for those with degrees or useful skills in trades like plumbing and carpentry, it is challenging to face starting over, and some reentrants have no formal work experience at all. Added to that, they have the disadvantage of being prejudged by many prospective employers, and they know it.

As a result of their limited or uneven work history, returning citizens often lack confidence – a situation familiar to many of us. Finding a job after incarceration often means starting over, and all of us can empathize when we think back to the beginnings of our own careers. Interviewing, crafting a resume, and even knowing how to search for jobs are all challenging, learned skills, and returning citizens have to relearn them, or learn them for the first time, while facing an additional handicap.

What they need most is a chance. “I don’t know anyone who hasn’t made a mistake,” notes Vita Board member and Jobs Readiness volunteer Maxine Katz. It is up to the rest of us to give returning citizens a chance to start over and remake their lives.

Thank You for Your Years of Teaching, Maryjane McHugh!

After 13 years teaching math at Vita, Maryjane McHugh is taking a well-earned retirement this February. Growing up, Maryjane ironically knew she didn’t want to be a teacher; instead, she had ambitions to learn programming, which led her to study mathematics. Life had other plans, however, and she soon found herself accepting a teaching job as much because the commute was practical as for any other reason.

She found the experience much more rewarding than she had expected, and it started a career as a teacher, then a department head,  assistant principal, and

principal, setting her on the path that eventually led to Vita. Early in her career, Maryjane found she particularly liked teaching girls, because they expected to be poor at math and it was satisfying to help them discover that they had just as much potential as the boys.

She takes similar pleasure in working with adult students. Many of them had unpleasant experiences of high school, or never had the chance

to complete school, especially women and immigrants. This can cause them anxiety that holds them back, but it also means that they do not take education for granted. “They’re more respectful than any teenager,” Maryjane notes with a chuckle. She describes her students as motivated and determined, committing to learn despite many having children to raise or working two jobs. “Sometimes, they come in and ask me to help explain their childrens’ math homework,” she says. “One of my favorite parts [of teaching] is when they catch me making a mistake,” Maryjane explains with a smile. “It helps them feel comfortable making mistakes themselves, and that helps them learn.” Another

thing she enjoys is seeing her students work together and support each other, such as when students with limited English skills help translate and explain concepts to each other, or students who are taking to the material naturally share their work and help out those who are struggling.

An important lesson she learned is to actively solicit questions from her students, and even encourage them to share the stories of their lives. Getting to know them makes the class more comfortable with her, and with each other, and the mutual support they offer can be a powerful factor in helping them achieve success.

Maryjane, on behalf of your colleagues and especially your students, Vita thanks you for your years of hard work. A caring teacher can be a powerful influence on a student’s life, and we will always be grateful for your choice to spend your time among us. Once again, we hope you enjoy your retirement!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving is here, and we at Vita want to express how thankful we are for all of you who contribute to our work and form our community. Our dedicated teachers, staff, and volunteers provide the instruction and support our students need to thrive, and our donors’ support helps keep the agency staffed and our programs running.

Of course, our efforts are ultimately about our students, who make the time to educate themselves while working hard at jobs and caring for their children and inspire the rest of us with their determination. As ESL teacher Jose Garcia said, “I think that if I am able to have an impact…and make that little bit of a difference in their lives…that’s what keeps on bringing me back.”

That spirit has sustained Vita and fueled its growth over the years, and we believe it will continue to do so for years to come. Your contributions and commitment to our mission are what make this community great, and we are truly grateful to all of you.

In the meantime, we at Vita wish everyone a joyous holiday with your families and friends. You make Vita and our community great!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thank you, Peggy

The Vita community is saddened by the recent passing of Peggy Blanco. Peggy brought her skills as an English teacher to Vita, teaching students in both our English as a Second Language and GED Preparation programs. More recently, she served as a member of Vita’s Board of Directors, continuing to support our mission.

In lieu of flowers, Peggy’s family has kindly asked that donations be made in her memory to support Vita’s programs and further her legacy of giving back to the community. To read more about Peggy and her memorial arrangements, you can view her obituary in the Bucks County Courier Times here.

We thank Peggy for her friendship and her years of work on Vita’s behalf, and offer our condolences to her family. Peggy, you will be missed.

Vita Partners with United Way to Help Ukrainian refugees


Vita Education Services is partnering with the United Way of Bucks County to offer English as a Second Language (ESL) classes to Ukrainian refugees who have recently resettled in Bucks County. The United Way has found that many struggle to gain employment due to lack of English proficiency.

With one class for beginners and one for those with some prior knowledge, these classes will provide language skills to help refugees adapt to life in the United States. These classes are being hosted by Regeneration Church in Fairless Hills, which includes many Ukrainian-Americans and has become a hub of support for refugees.

“Vita Education Services is honored to work alongside the United Way of Bucks County and the Regeneration Church to help recently arrived Ukrainian refugees get settled in our community,” says Vita Executive Director Mercedes Anderson. “Not knowing the language of one’s new home can be an enormous barrier to starting a new life. Vita’s ESL programs help adults learn English they can use right away in daily life.”

Family Literacy Week

The Week of September 19th was Family Literacy and Adult Education week, highlighting this important but often-overlooked facet of education. While educating children is critical, providing education to adults can also have powerful effects on families.

The National Institutes of Health found that educating parents, as well as children, has a stronger effect than only working with children. In fact, a mother’s literacy is the best indicator of her child’s future academic success. Education also helps adults secure jobs that pay family-sustaining wages.

This is why Vita’s Family Literacy program, which is beginning a new year of classes, is so important. People come to Bucks County from all over the world, and our teachers are working with parents from Afghanistan, China, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Turkey, El Salvador, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, and Tatarstan.

This semester’s parents have 69 children, whose lives will be touched by the program. They speak languages including Cantonese, Farsi, Turkish, and Ukrainian, but want to learn English in order to build new lives here.

Vita Awarded Grant by Foundations Community Partnership

Foundations Community Partnership has awarded Vita a $3,000 Partnership in Youth Services Grant to fund a field trip for our Family Literacy classes, which will make it possible for them to visit the Bucks County Children’s Museum. We are grateful for FCP’s support, and excited for the opportunity this presents to the children in our program.


Foundations Community Partnership (FCP) is a non-profit, private grant-making foundation established in 2007 to support the behavioral health and human service needs of children, young adults, and families in Bucks County, Pa. In response, the organization provides grants and technical assistance, scholarships, and professional development as well as service-learning opportunities through collaborative partnerships.

Goodbye, Dottie

This Summer, Vita said a fond and grateful farewell to Dottie Hence, who has been part of our team since November 2000. As Vita’s Data Manager (AKA “Data Diva”) for two decades, Dottie has been vitally important, and we will miss her welcoming attitude, hard work, and sense of humor.

Friend and former colleague Judy Schaeffer describes Dottie as Vita’s unsung hero for her role in tracking data on our students, classes, tutors, and teachers, and providing reports on demand to meet Vita’s needs. Her work has been vital to maintaining compliance with government rules, to keeping the decision-makers informed about what we’re actually accomplishing, and to securing funding. More recently, she and some friends also devised the specialty cocktails that were served at Vita’s 50th Anniversary celebration. Since this is not technically part of her job, we can only see it as proof of her commitment to Vita.

Asked about her career, Dottie recalls that when she first joined Vita, it was a smaller organization, with everyone crammed into half the office space. A lot has changed over the years: the Literacy and English as a Second Language departments have expanded, the Family Literacy program went from an idea to a core part of Vita, and three women have occupied the position of Executive Director.

What Dottie considers most noteworthy is not Vita’s growth, however. “Vita is like a family,” she says. “It’s just in the atmosphere.” She is confident that Vita will go on because the people here care about each other and look after each other.

What she does not say is that she herself deserves a share of the credit for establishing and maintaining that atmosphere. While Dottie makes it clear that she is not professionally irreplaceable, she will still be missed by those of us who knew her, whether briefly or for decades.

Dottie thanks her colleagues for years of friendship and teamwork. To that, we can only say: thank you, Dottie. We wish you good health and every happiness.