Deltona resident Mary Michelle Arsenault built, staffed, and now oversees a school in Uganda, funded entirely by her salary as a full-time nurse at Florida Hospital DeLand and Florida Hospital Fish Memorial in Orange City.
“On the side, I started a charity. I bought land and built a school to promote education,” Arsenault said.
Arsenault, who was born in Rwanda but grew up in Uganda, has been a nurse since 1983.
“It was the only option I had. I grew up in a very poor community, and the nursing school was the only one close to my village,” she said. “But since, I have never even looked for another job.”
So how did she end up in Deltona?
“Adventurer! I’ve been an adventurer since I was 18 — I’ve traveled all over the world,” Arsenault said.
Arsenault told The Beacon that after the genocide in Rwanda, international organizations were looking for English-speaking nurses. Her experiences opened the door for opportunities to travel.
“Chicago, New York, oh, all over. I thought I was going to be a traveling nurse,” Arsenault said. “Then I had a child and got married and settled here. And am happy.”
Arsenault settled in Deltona in 2006. But she visited her home in Africa every year, and what she saw there prompted her to take more direct action.
“When I would visit, I would see 25 children, naked and malnourished, not going to school,” she said. “I started picking up children from the village and taking them to the city. I did that for five years. I didn’t see any good return from it. They go back to the same environment, no one can help with homework, and they look healthy, so their parents want them to get married, at age 11 or 12. … Three generations and four generations, who don’t know how to read.
“So I did some research and realized that was not the best approach,” she added. “I bought some land, and built a school.”
In 2012, Arsenault began a nonprofit organization called the Kiwonnongo Foundation.
She defined Kiwonnongo as an ugly, remote cave, a place that, if you enter, you never return from.
“It has a lot of personal meaning to me. My personal goal — if I educate one girl, if I save one girl, that is so many other girls I am saving from marriage, or death,” she said.
Arsenault’s school, St. Jerome Emiliani Academy, is currently attended by 300 children.
The school teaches both boys and girls.
“If we are going to change how the world operates for girls, we have to change the boys,” Arsenault said.
Entirely with her salary as a nurse here in Volusia County, Arsenault bought land in the village of Lunya, near her own hometown, built a school, and advertised and got experienced teachers from outside the nearest city.
“We pay more than the government does,” she said.
The school has a headmaster, 14 teachers, and nine other staff members. In addition to educational programs, the school has chickens, pigs, goats and cows, and a garden.
“We come from a holistic standpoint, so when they leave they will know how to cook and wash and take care of animals, and garden,” Arsenault said.
The foundation also runs a youth group, and three women’s groups in nearby communities.
“I serve my job from the end of Christianity. I am Catholic, and believe in serving others before yourself,” Arsenault said. “I have no retirement … I’ve trained my family not to give Christmas gifts. Instead, give it to children who really need it.”
Arsenault said there are similarities between nursing in Rwanda and Deltona.
“We are all human. We all need a nice hand to hold, when we are not feeling well,” she said.