Arsenault serves pizza to youths from Colonia Volcanes Arsenault serves pizza to youths from Colonia Volcanes. foxes photos

Retired priest’s efforts raise nearly $100,000

The money has funded an education program in a poor neighborhood of Puerto Vallarta

An education program in a poor neighborhood of Puerto Vallarta has come a long way in five years, largely because of the tireless fundraising efforts of one man.

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Upon arriving in Puerto Vallarta six years ago, retired Catholic priest Éloi Arsenault was taken by the beauty, faith and courage of the poor communities within the city, one of which is Colonia Volcanes, the farthest away in distance and means from the hotels, resorts, condominiums and beaches along the city’s Pacific shore.

At the time, the people of Colonia Volcanes were attempting to improve their children’s education and health. Parents and teachers were working with the Volcanes Community Education Program (VCEP) to get English language classes and computer training for primary students. But funding was needed to pay for after-school teachers.

Arsenault was born in the small village of Saint Chrysostome, Prince Edward Island, on the east coast of Canada and during his youth his community was one of poorest in the province.

The level of poverty in Volcanes reminded him of his own youth and the poverty he had seen and experienced growing up. But as had happened in his own community, the parents of promising Volcanes children were pushing for change and a chance for their sons and daughters.

After becoming a priest almost five decades ago, Arsenault worked to advance the rights of the poor in his province as well as Acadian and First Nations groups, resulting in new and better schools, roads and services to many poor communities.

He was recognized for his efforts in 2004 with the province’s highest civilian honor, the Order of PEI.

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The priest didn’t stop helping others when he retired. Over the past five years he has spread the word about Volcanes to members of his community in PEI, generating donations that have helped put the struggling VCEP on a firm footing, making it a showcase where local government and education officials go to see real and positive change from within and with the support of the community.

The donation amounts raised each year continue to astound, says VCEP volunteer Thomas Landry, and have allowed the hiring of four full-time teachers to replace the eight part-timers and volunteers who taught the English and computer courses.

The program, he says, has blossomed with the newly built library and computer-equipped study room with WiFi.

The library and study areas are monitored by parents every night and the free WiFi allows the young and old of the community to tap into the free signal on their phones or go online on one of the many available laptops. Grades 7 to 12 students are no longer at a disadvantage in relation to students from wealthier families with computers at home, and can also hand in their assignments using Word or Excel.

On weekends, Arsenault continues to work alongside other volunteers serving at Café Roma’s Saturday Pizza Party for the children of the Volcanes School which for many is a chance to see life outside their own neighborhood: the cost for their families to travel by bus to and from the beach can be more than several days’ wages.

This year, Arsenault has raised slightly over CAD $29,000 for the VCEP Teacher’s Fund, bringing his fundraising, over the last five years, to a total of $95,300.

Although Colonia Volcanes is one of the poorest areas of Puerto Vallarta, Landry says that due to people such as Father Éloi Arsenault it has become one of the safest and most hopeful.

Its residents see changes in the eyes of their children who, even though they are tired after a full day at school, return after school hours for even more classroom time because of the quality of the teachers and the feeling of hope which prevails throughout the community.

More information can be found about the project at vallartasur.com, volcanesproject.com and the Volcanes Facebook page.

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