September 5, 2015

New School Offers Hope to Graying Church in Puerto Rico

The first Adventist school on Vieques, an island belonging to Puerto Rico and located 8 miles (13 kilometers) off its eastern coast, promises to breath new life into the graying local church membership after its enrollment tripled in its second year of classes this fall.

Vieques Adventist Academy, which teaches kindergarten through sixth grade on the premises of the only local Adventist church, saw enrollment surge from 15 children when it opened in 2014 to 47 children this fall.

The school was born after the church’s pastor, Nephtali Ortega, studied the needs of the local community and prayed for a plan that would reinvigorate the missionary spirit of the church’s mainly elderly members. The church, which began in the 1920s and has 103 members, has few children and no young people.

Ortega decided that the island needed an Adventist school — and the spurt in enrollment suggests that he was right.

“I’m happy for all that has been accomplished,” he said, underscoring that the school belonged to God.

The church is planning to organize a Pathfinder club soon to better engage students and other children in the community, he said.

Gabriel Torres, a church member and physical education teacher at a public school who enrolled his son in the Adventist school, said it was only a matter of time before students started attending the adjourning church.

“The school will bring more children and young people” to church, he said.

Students heading for classes at Vieques Adventist Academy. (David Sebastian / IAD)

Business owners, public school teachers, and government functionaries who send their children to the school have expressed delight with its work.

Xiamara Pagan, who oversees a trust to preserve Vieques’ history, said she was pleased that her daughter attends a school with a Christian atmosphere.

The school is also motivating church members to put a greater spotlight on sharing Jesus with the island’s close-knit community of more than 9,000 people, said Dalila Pujol, the school principal and the church’s head elder.

“The church has focused more inwardly, and members need to go out to create mission-minded teams,” Pujol said. “By doing so, we can have a greater impact in more than one area.”

The beginning of the school, the only private educational institution on the island, is a remarkable story in itself.

After Ortega decided to open the school, he met a retired couple while visiting family members in the United States who had taught in public schools in Massachusetts and, years earlier, in Adventist schools in Puerto Rico. The couple, Angel M. Rojas and his wife, Rosita, agreed to move to Vieques as missionary teachers last year.

A truck delivering one of the shipping containers that was turned into a classroom last year. (David Sebastian / IAD)

Then six large shipping containers that had been donated to the Adventist Church in East Puerto Rico were turned into classrooms and three restrooms. Parents of prospective students helped paint the school.

The local branches of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency and Adventist Community Services donated backpacks and school supplies for all the students, expanding on a service that it provides to public school students. Rio Grande Adventist Academy allowed the new school to open under its license, although the school now has its own license.

Vieques Adventist Academy, one of 20 Adventist schools and one university with about 4,450 students in Puerto Rico, has six staff members, including the principal and secretary. All teachers hold the official status of missionaries.

David Sebastian, communication director for the church in East Puerto Rico, visited Vieques Adventist Academy on its first day of school a few days ago and expressed astonishment about the stir that it was causing among church members and the community.

“We are so happy because this new academy is having a great impact on the community and is shedding positive light on the church, not only with its education but also with the church’s charity work in the community,” he said.