Wellington, Canada — It's become a vacation with meaning for Fr. Eloi Arsenault. For the past four years, he has spent his winters in warm Mexico. But he's not roaming the sandy beaches and staying at world-class resorts.
The retired priest is living among the poorest of the poor and, with help from back home, working to make a better life for the children of Mexico.
"Otherwise, I would just be there to walk on the beach or go to movies. I would not have been too happy about that."
For the past two years, Arsenault has collected cash donations to help an impoverished school near Puerto Vallarta, the Volcanes School.
He's collected almost $32,000, mostly from the Evangeline area, all of which goes to help the school and its almost 500 students.
Father Eloi Arsenault
He and a small group of volunteers have been working since then to provide children there with an education, teaching them English & computer skills.
"Before that they didn't have a school that was fit to go to," said Arsenault. "The children were called the children of the dump. After Grade 2 or 3 they wouldn't go back to school; they were just working with their families to survive."
He was asked, after that first year, to fundraise to help pay salaries of the eight teachers, each of whom earns a mere $2,500 American.
"It gives them hope for a job in Puerto Vallarta since it's a tourist city," Arsenault said. "Otherwise, without English and computer skills they could not get jobs in boutiques, stores, hotels, resorts, or restaurants.
"With this, they know that they might have a better chance in life."
Before returning the next year, Arsenault went to the community he grew up in and had served 18 years as a priest.
The response — $11,000 in donations — was overwhelming. Last year, that number grew to $20,600 and five new computers for the school's library.
"There is a lady that gave me $3.52 before I left. That's all she could give and was a poor widow with no money," said Arsenault. "That really touched me as much as the $1,000 I received from the Legion."
The group is not only helping the students, their parents are also benefitting. That library, with its five computers, is used by mothers who are learning English and by older students in high school.
And the group, thanks to a large private donation, has established a sewing school, where women are taught to sew, a skill that will help them provide for their families.
Arsenault has enlisted the help of Erma Arsenault, Cecile Gallant and Bella Bernard, who help stuff envelopes with letters to be distributed, asking for support.
"If a new family comes, everybody pitches in," said Erma. "When we see the chance to help that much, we will do it."
Fr. Arsenault returns to Mexico December 5 and hopes that, again, with the community's help, to have with him more donations for the school.
"The goal is to simply bring whatever people will donate," he said.
Being a man of faith, does he believe the vacation turned vocation was in God's plans?
"I think so," Erma quickly says.
Arsenault is somewhat reluctant in his answer.
"I had no idea it would happen. It just happened that way," he added. "It gives so much more meaning to my retirement."
A few facts
• Volcanes School is in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
• About 500 children attend the school, grades 2 to 6
• The project began four years ago
• Last year, $20,600 collected from 120 donors
• In 2012, $11,000 was donated
• 80 per cent goes to paying eight teachers each $2,500 a year
• 100 per cent of monies donated go to the school and its students
To donate, call Fr. Eloi at (902) 854-3531, Erma at (902) 854-2742, Bella at (902) 854-2723, Cecile at (902) 854-2473. Donations also accepted at Evangeline Credit Union.
About the Volcanes Community Education Program
The Volcanes Community Education Program is not funded by the Mexican Government, by the public school system, or by a charity or foundation. All funding for this program is by way of donations. Donations are needed on a continual basis to ensure that this project continues to operate - to purchase supplies for the students and the teachers, as well as to pay the teachers a small stipend of $3,000 pesos per month (approximately $230 per month.) The children in Volcanes need our programs in order to break the cycle of poverty and move into the main stream of Puerto Vallarta life.
For more information regarding the program or to find out how you can help, visit the Volcanes Community Education Program website.