50 years on, homegrown education program has aided millions

John David Arnold can tell you exactly how he got to where he is in life, and it involves a tourism guide and an insult.

Arnold, 74, is founder of Portable Practical Educational Preparation Inc., also known as PPEP, a non-profit that grew from a handful of people with a limited mission in 1967, to an international organization that employs more than 500 and has helped 4 million people in Arizona, Mexico and Africa.

Arnold was 4 years old and living in Pennsylvania when his father agreed to write a tourist guide for AAA in Guadalajara, Mexico. He spent five years soaking up the language and culture of Mexico before his father moved the family to Nogales, Ariz., and then Tucson.

When Arnold was 12, a friend insulted another group of children and the boys ran off, eventually taking refuge inside Government Heights Baptist Church.

While there, Arnold met the Rev. Roy Goodwin, who operated a ministry out of a bus every week in Sahuarita, Tubac and Amado.

Soon, Arnold was traveling on the bus every week and chatting with migrant workers who worked for FICO.

“Because I spoke Spanish, they used me to interpret Scripture,” he said.

When Arnold turned 16, the church gave him his own bus, a 1937 GMC, and he established ministries in the Santa Cruz Valley, Rillito and Marana.

Arnold earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Arizona in Spanish and sociology and went to work for Head Start.

That’s when he decided to do something for migrant workers and their children who were struggling to make it in the United States.

“I decided I wanted to open a small school that was practical in nature,” Arnold said.

He applied for a grant with the Tucson War on Poverty Program and with the $19,000, he bought a 48-passenger, 1957 Chevrolet school bus known as “La Tortuga,” which means “the tortoise” in Spanish.

He hired people from Sahuarita to spread the word to migrant workers that he and a few others were starting Portable Practical Educational Preparation Inc. and teaching classes in English, literacy and driver’s ed.

Every night, the bus would go from Tucson to the old Sahuarita Elementary School. Arnold and volunteers from Tucson Unified School District would give classes inside the bus and the school.

“We’d fill the bus up,” Arnold said.

One class was hugely popular, he said.

“The driver’s ed was a big thing because the women were feeling trapped,” Arnold said. “We’d load the ladies up in my car and we’d go down to La Cañada to where the road divided. For the final test, we’d go up to Madera Canyon and the ladies would all be saying their Hail Marys.”

Arnold had no idea that PPEP would take off and impact millions of lives.

“What I was most worried about then was getting a flat tire at night on the way to Sahuarita and having enough money for gas and oil,” he said. “There wasn’t a whole lot of time to think about the future.”

In 1969, Ted Turpin, founder of the Green Valley News and a big supporter of PPEP, convinced Arnold that the only way to grow was to incorporate. Turpin, Mercy Teso, Mario Cota Robles, Gertha Brown and Jose Cruz made up the first PPEP board.

“I wanted to have a board of people that was like us,” Arnold said, referring to himself and his volunteers. “The whole idea of community action was to help the poor. We wanted them to see the program wasn’t a give-away program, but one that would help people help themselves.”

Arnold would be the literal and figurative driver of the bus, the mechanic and the teacher, but the board would be his navigators.

Ultimately, his first board was made up of people who “believed the bus, in a real sense, was going to go somewhere,” he said.

It was also in 1969 that PPEP went from educating the poor to organizing the Sahuarita Village Water Co-Op and creating a housing program with the help of FICO and the USDA in Sahuarita, Continental and Amado.

Around that time, PPEP was also involved in one of the first telemedicine experiments, which was conducted in Continental, Arnold said.

Since those days, PPEP has established 11 farmworker, rural and inner-city charter high schools and established more than 20 group homes, residential and work sites for developmentally disabled or mentally ill people.

In addition, PPEP offers economic, microbusiness, health, housing, counseling, employment, job training and a variety of other services in rural settings.

Arnold, who holds two master’s degrees and a doctorate in administration and education, has spread his work to Mexico and Africa.

PPEP has been cited as a national model 10 times in U.S. Congressional records.

La Tortuga now sits inside a museum at PPEP’s administrative offices in Tucson, but the people who navigate the bus continue to work to help those in need, Arnold said.

“I’m very pleased with the progress we’ve made, but there’s always going to need to be a bus,” he said. “We’ve planted the seeds all over two continents and the work we’ve done is not going to go away. We’ve made some real substantial progress.”

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