Tuesday, 9 of February of 2016

Volunteers versus the Jungle at Rancho Universo

Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015

Rancho Universo is a safe haven for rescue horses.

Rancho Universo is a safe haven for rescue horses.

Twelve volunteers made the bumpy drive down a long, narrow, overgrown path through the jungle. They arrived at Rancho Universo where they were greeted by a half dozen rescue dogs, a peacock and several rescue horses.

The volunteers’ task was to spruce up the visitor facilities and improve access to the corral where the horse therapy sessions take place. They used a variety of borrowed cleaning supplies and tools—machetes, a reciprocating saw, hatchets, pruning shears and gloves.

“We just tried to beat back the jungle,” said Gary from Nebraska. “It tries to encroach and take over, so we hauled away two pick-up loads of brush and tree trimmings—definitely hot and sweaty work.”

Rancho Universo is operated by Liliana Velasco-Ariza and provides therapy for children and adults with a variety of disabilities. It is also dedicated to providing a sanctuary for horses that have suffered from neglect and abuse.

Somewhere under this pile of brush and tree trimmings is a pickup ready to haul it away.

Somewhere under this pile of brush and tree trimmings is a pickup ready to haul it away.

Rancho Universo’s website explains that they “nurture and heal these magnificent animals and they, in turn, provide a safe, nurturing and healing environment for disabled children.” Children and adults can switch roles by becoming caregivers themselves, offering a carrot to a horse or brushing its coat. The simple riding of a horse can “assist physical healing through the reception of stimuli (including) positive results for those with neurological disorders, autism, cerebral palsy” and many other conditions.

Although Ilene, a Texas volunteer arrived a day later than planned due to weather delays, her Facebook status showed she was happy to be helping out.

We got here in plenty of time to get our machetes and go to the horse farm today. Well, I actually never got a machete. All I got was a toilet brush, a broom and a rag for a mop, but all is good! So glad to have the opportunity to serve!”

After the volunteers waged their battle against the jungle, access to the ranch was greatly improved.

After the volunteers waged their battle against the jungle, access to the ranch was greatly improved.

  More updates to come. ~ Phyllis from Nebraska


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Caught Up in the Force

— Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015

Vortex (noun): An irresistible force; a whirling mass in which a force of suction operates.

This is how one Friends of Cozumel supporter described the upcoming experience to a group of about 15 local and visiting volunteers gathered for dinner at April’s house to review the project options listed on the white board:

“Here we go. Now we’re in the volunteer vortex.”

Volunteers Susan and John discuss the project plan and schedule.

Volunteers Susan and John discuss the project plan and schedule.

The planning for the winter mission activities has been in the works for projects ranging from mentoring students to getting seriously dirty.

“Our focus has always been on children and families,” said Karen Pedersen of the FOC leadership team. “Even if we’re cleaning up the horse therapy ranch for example, in the end they serve children and families.”

In the next two weeks, Friends of Cozumel volunteers will take on sewing and gardening workshops to help families make the most of their limited resources. They’ll help students explore the option of higher education after high school, tutor those trying to learn English, and use donated equipment to teach others how to snorkel. They’ll also provide baby supplies to a family in need, distribute reading glasses, staff a yard sale type Gran Bazar and work with church members on several maintenance and improvement projects.

“We don’t want to just swoop in and fix things,” said Larry Pedersen of the leadership team. “We want to teach people how to do these things for themselves. Then someday those people can come back and help others—talk about their experiences and pass on their knowledge.”

Gary thanks April for preparing his favorite volunteer fuel--deviled eggs.

Gary thanks April for preparing his favorite volunteer fuel–deviled eggs.

This morning was spent in preparation for projects that promise to be fairly complex with lots of supplies to gather. But the team sucked in by the afternoon’s irresistible force had simple instructions for their work at the horse ranch: wear closed toe shoes and bring a machete.

Things are bound to get interesting in the volunteer vortex. Send us your comments and stay tuned for updates. — Phyllis from Nebraska

The winter mission volunteers share a rare, "we're all clean" moment.

The winter mission volunteers shared in the planning and celebration of the work about to begin.




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New Roofs Being Added to Vida Abundante Pastors Quarters – Sept 2014


View from front door of dining room

Imagine you are remodeling your home and this is the view from the front door! That is exactly what is happening at Vida Abundante Church this month. The roof that was previously over the dining room (current photo) was made out of a cardboard material one year ago and had a hole in the middle of it that was covered by plastic tarps. As you might imagine, every time it rained there was water inside the room. Thanks to some generous donations, the church has sufficient funds to put new cement roofs over this room and the room next door which serves as the bedroom for all four children.

Forms for roof

The forms being put into place

Pastor Mariela’s father happens to do this kind of cement work and graciously offered to come to Cozumel and stay for a number of weeks to complete this project. Prior doorways are being enclosed and new entrances created. Various window openings are being closed, resized and opened up. A new office area is being created as part of a room expansion and a larger kitchen area is going to be created to finally allow sufficient space to create meals for this family of six!

As you can imagine, living amongst all of this demolition and construction with cement, sand and dust is a bit challenging but the family is taking it in stride. They are excited with the prospect of living in quarters that will remain dry during the frequent rains that arrive regularly.

Once the roof work has been completed, additional work will be done when the Volunteer Christian Builders group arrives in October. They plan to collectively provide 100 hours of volunteer labor during a one day visit. Plans are to build and install some inner wall partitions to provide the children with their own areas, shelving for the dining and office areas and to apply sealer on the new rooftops.

With the recent purchase, Vida Abundante Church can now justify making these necessary improvements. The church is very grateful for all of the generous donations of money, labor and assistance that have allowed this to become a reality.

Roof is ready

Reinforcing rods have been put into place.

A mixer will greatly aid in preparing the cement

A mixer will greatly aid in preparing the cement

The first of many batches is  ready

The first of many batches is ready

Loading the mixer

Pouring cement is a very manual process.

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Second $ Milestone Reached . . . Vida Abundante Land – September 2014

It is a red letter day for achieving a significant milestone but more accurate to say Vida Abundante’s land fund is “in the black”. Incredibly generous donations and hard work of local church members filled the remaining gap in funds for the second large land payment of 125,000 pesos (~ $10,000 USD) due today, September 1st.

Kristin Photo

Kristin has a deep love for Cozumel.

Friends of Cozumel is not a religious based organization or church sponsored mission effort. However, reaching out to help children and families in need is a common interest among volunteers and donors of diverse beliefs. Vida Abundante church’s vision and commitment to serving the community of greatest need has resulted in very generous donations.

It has been a humbling experience to be a part of an effort where donors have carefully thought through their gift and shared what it means to them personally. Kristin Bowen, a frequent visitor and mission volunteer, wrote this reflection: “To see God work … knowing He is building our faith and preparing us for something we don’t even know is coming. That He used us to help grow Vida Abundante. To see that God is providing for their needs … in the most amazing … awesome way … I’m blown away.”

Pastors Mariela and Salomón

Pastors Mariela and Salomón

Pastors Salomon and Mariela, as well as church members, extend their deep appreciation to ALL of the donors who contributed resources for the first two land payments: Alex & Mildred Alicea, Christopher & Anne Bean, Tim & Kay Bjorkman, Kristin & Bill Bowen, Denny & Heather Gepford, Paula Hastreiter, Mary Jo Heins, Byron & Ilene Kendrick, Margie Kirk, Wanna Kniss, April Koss DiPasquale, Mike & Hettie Legg, Pastora Noami Noble, Larry & Karen Pedersen, Micki Pelkey, Jeremy & Jennifer Pulley, Bill & Marge Stimson, and Bernita Weber. So many others have also contributed resources and sweat equity to enhancing the church land and facilities. Watch for updates and photos coming soon.

The next challenge? Gathering funds for the final large land payment of 78,000 pesos (~$6, 240 USD) due 12/31/14. Church members continue to donate ingredients, to make and sell empanadas, panuchos and salbutes at the plaza twice a month to earn $ for the monthly payments of 3,000 pesos (~$240 USD). Families are also trying to save money to fulfill their pledges to contribute to land payments even though it is now “low” season when employment is scarce. Click here to view the financial summary and find out how you can help. ~ Karen in Cozumel.

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Vida Abundante Church Reaches 75% of Land Purchase Goal – August 2014

How many empanadas must be sold to buy a lot in Cozumel?

Remember math story problems? UGH . . . I hated them. The descriptions were confusing and didn’t seem relevant to everyday life. Now I “get it”. Each empanada, panucho, and salbute hand made and sold by Vida Abundante Church members takes them a step closer to realizing their vision. “Our vision is to purchase this land as a center of spiritual help, a refuge and education center. But the costs are high. Our vision is big, but so is God. He will help us.” ~ Pastor Salomon.

Delicious Empanadas

This boy thinks the empanadas are great!

One week and ~ $1,500 USD gap in funds remain before Vida Abundante’s $10,000 USD land payment is due September 1. The fund shortage on Sep. 1 will be filled by an interest free loan provided by a donor.

The next BIG challenge is the final land payment of $6,240 USD due December 31, 2014. Interested in supporting the church to realize their dream? Click here for a financial plan update or to learn about the “Vida Abundante Land Purchase and How You Can Help”.

This is a “good news” story filled with blessings. Pastors and church members are excited, motivated and working very hard to continue to raise funds for the land payments at the same time they are reaching out to serve the community. They definitely have “skin in the game”.

Even youth have provided personal pledges (setting aside pesos they might otherwise spend on snacks). A teen group raised 700 pesos (~ $56 USD) selling decorative hair items and jewelry at a Gran Bazar . . . a first time experience for them pricing items, displaying, selling and making change.

Vida Abundante’s commitment to serving God in the community (vs. an internal focus like many congregations) has been recognized by a Mexican pastor in Cancun who provided a significant personal donation to initiate the land purchase.

Members of the church working the kermes

The family of Reyes (members of Vida Abundante) is working the booth

MUCHAS GRACIAS to many individuals, families and groups who have provided one-time or ongoing monthly donations. It is humbling and inspirational to be involved in an effort like this where people give from their heart without expectations of personal recognition.

Answer to “How many empanadas must be sold to pay the balance due on the lot?” . . . 19,350 @ $.40USD.
HOLY GUACAMOLE!! . . . that is a LOT of empanadas (tortillas folded in half stuffed with cheese, beans or ground beef flash fried in hot oil) to make and sell. Care to come help make/buy them or provide a donation? ~ Karen from Cozumel

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Chepita Soup–August, 2014


(Left to right) Chepita, Phyllis, Jose and Gary enjoy meal together.

(Left to right) Chepita, Phyllis, Jose and Gary enjoy meal together.

Chepita is a great cook, but sometimes I try to provide the meal when we get together. Sooner or later the conversation always seems to turn to food. Over a lunch of what I call “flat chicken,” we discussed our favorite dishes with Jose and Chepita, long time friends who have become our second family in Cozumel.

The chicken that is first cut, than flattened over a wood-fired grill, is easy to find if you just follow the savory aroma. Shops sell a whole chicken, including rice, salsa, salad and tortillas for about $7 to $8. It seems like a bargain to me, but it’s way outside of the food budget for many families in Cozumel.

Chepita explained that the garden that we helped her create last February is now producing cilantro, radishes, onions and herbs to supplement their diets.

This garden helps feed Charo's family.

This garden helps feed Charo’s family.

Several other families are also enjoying success with gardens that FOC helped them start. Charo’s family of 12 lives in a three-room house where they’ve created a garden in 5-gallon buckets despite and sandy and rocky ground. This approach helps prevent the precious, purchased topsoil from washing away during the rainy season.

Charo is proud of her banana tree.

Charo is proud of her banana tree.

Charo proudly showed me her banana tree, explaining how each tree produces only one bunch, then dies after sending up shoots for a new tree.

Learning how to grow some their own food is important to these families’ survival. In fact, sometimes garden produce is the whole meal.

“When we don’t have food in the refrigerator—no chicken, no potatoes—I make soup,” said Chepita. “Maybe I have a couple of eggs or a handful of pasta. I can feed the family with that and some things from the garden.”

The family she’s feeding typically includes some of the adult children and grandchildren. Here’s the recipe for soup as described by Chepita.

  1. Go to the garden and find some herba buena, cilantro and onion. Chop it up.
  2. Now fry two eggs if you have them. Chop them up.
  3. Bring a pan of water to a boil. Add some salt and some powdered chicken broth or a little tomato puree if you have it.
  4. Add in the eggs and garden things. That’s it.

“This is a poor person’s soup,” Chepita said. “But it has a rich flavor.”

I have no doubt about that.   ~Phyllis from Nebraska

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Shopping for New Old Clothes–August, 2014

Shoppers patiently waited in line for the Gran Bazar to open.

Shoppers patiently waited for the Gran Bazar to open.

How far would you walk for some new clothes that weren’t exactly new? Some families walked for several kilometers to attend the Friends of Cozumel Gran Bazar last week. They arrived early and stood in line in the hot sun, hoping to get first choice of the bargain-priced goods.

The Bazar was like a giant yard sale where families found used clothing, shoes and household items—as well as a few new items that had been donated to the cause. It’s all needed by families in the neighborhoods far from the tourist zone. (Click on the photos for larger images.)

VIda Abundante teens helped earn money to support their church.

Vida Abundante teens helped earn money to support their church.

Peso, by peso, the proceeds were gathered to help support projects such as the Vida Abundante church land purchase. Teen church members set up their own table to sell jewelry they’d made. They gained experience in learning to display and sell items, as well as making change. The proceeds will be their own contribution to the land purchase.

Gran Bazar proceeds will also help support future initiatives of Friends of Cozumel such as the ongoing school supplies/backpack project and a proposed plan to provide scholarships for students hoping to continue their education after high school.

The Bazar is a tremendous amount of work for volunteers, but it’s not just about raising money. Being able to help someone find a pair of shoes or a shirt when they have only a few coins to spend is a joy. And many of the gently used items are of good quality. Those donations will have new life—being worn until it is passed down to another family member who may eventually pass it on to a neighbor. It’s recycling at its very best.

This girl found a previously-loved turtle friend at the Bazar.

This girl found a previously-loved turtle friend at the Bazar.


Crowded conditions didn't dissuade shoppers.

Crowded conditions didn’t dissuade shoppers.


People need shoes. Can you donate new or gently used shoes to FOC?

People need shoes. Can you donate new or gently used shoes to FOC?


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Here’s a Kiss for You–July, 2014

Viridiana (left) and Carmen select their backpacks.

Viridiana (left) and Carmen select their backpacks.

Meet Charo’s family. Viridiana wants to work in business administration. She’s a successful university student with just one semester to go. Monse likes math and wants to work in accounting. She has just two years of university left and is already helping to support the family with part-time work in an office.  Jose begins university classes this year and hopes to work in the hospitality or tourism industry. The other six children are in prepa (high school), secundaria (junior high), and primaria (primary school).

Charo (left) tries on a pair of reading glasses while her children wait for a shoe fitting.

Charo (left) tries on a pair of reading glasses while her children wait for a shoe fitting.

Education is important in Charo’s family. Between part-time work, caring for 9 children and tending a garden, Charo is studying, too. She plans to take her secundaria examinations this winter.

Over the years, getting a little help from Friends of Cozumel in the form of school supplies and shoes assured that the children could attend school. And learning about composting in a FOC workshop a couple of years ago planted the idea of creating their own food source. Seeds and gifts of dirt (strange as that may sound) gave them the start on a garden that is now producing the fresh vegetables that are often too expensive for families with limited resources.

“Tenemos un arbol de bananas, tambien. (We have a banana tree, too.)” said Charo.

FOC volunteer Gary (right) helps Monse (left) fill her backpack with the supplies required for her university classes.

FOC volunteer Gary (right) helps Monse (left) fill her backpack with the supplies required for her university classes.

Friends of Cozumel volunteers have watched Charo’s family grow up for the past 10 years—since Viridiana and Monse were just little girls and Charo was struggling to keep food on the table. And each time I’ve seen them, they’ve been happy and positive. The oldest children have become strong role models to the younger ones who now have career goals of their own.

Carmen talked about becoming a nurse or maybe a lawyer. Shy, ten-year-old Jhoana plans a different approach.

“A dancer?” she said, hugging her new backpack with a photo of the band One Direction on the front.

When asked about the impact of education on the family, Charo was very clear.

“This is important. Things are very expensive on the island,” she said. “We can’t afford to buy materials. Thank you for the help.”

Then without any prompting from momma, each of the 9 children gave me kiss on the cheek. I’d like to share those 9 kisses with all FOC donors. Thanks for bringing education and a hopeful future to 300 Cozumel children this year.

~ Phyllis from Nebraska

Charo's family appreciate the help of Friends of Cozumel.

Charo’s family show their new backpacks–and their appreciation for the help from Friends of Cozumel.


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Hands at Work – July, 2014

 At yesterday’s school supply distribution, many students and their parents thanked the FOC volunteers. Sometimes it was in English, sometimes in Spanish, but today some students used their hands—for sign language.

Hands saying Love

Four students who have hearing impairments have been working with therapists at Manos y Voces (Hands and Voices). Friends of Cozumel helped Manos y Voces in 2012, by building the island’s first testing facility for those with hearing impairments. This small room is equipped with sound proofing material in the ceiling and walls and provides the doctor with the appropriate space to run hearing tests in a controlled environment. Six months ago, these two students were evaluated and it was determined that they were able to hear and differentiate enough sounds that they would benefit with a special type of hearing aids. They were provided with these aids and as a result, the students have made enough progress to now attend a regular school!

“One of the girls was so excited about the ‘Jesus Loves Me’ pencil pouch that she showed me and her mother when she unpacked it,” said Karen, an FOC coordinator. “I think she recognized the word Jesus. I told her she could thank the volunteer who made them and pointed out Ilene from Texas. The girl’s mother helped her practice what to say and I took her to Ilene. In nearly perfect pronunciation, she told Ilene thank you in Spanish. It was one of those truly priceless moments.”

The Manos y Voces students were very happy to receive their backpack of school supplies and we were just as happy to learn about their achievements. Felicidades—congratulations, to students, therapist and donors. What a great success story.

-Phyllis, Nebraska

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How Much Does a Pencil Cost? July, 2014

Happy group with their supplies

These kids were so pleased with their new backpacks and school supplies

You don’t have to spend much time in Cozumel to notice some remarkable differences between Mexican and U.S. culture. But it goes way beyond food, language and customs. I’ve noticed the eagerness of Cozumel children to attend school and wondered if their U.S. peers share that same degree of longing for opportunity. Perhaps education is something we too often take for granted, never dreaming we couldn’t “afford” to go to school.

In U.S. schools, pens, pencils, paper, and even computers are supplied to students. Education is valued in Cozumel, but learning materials must be brought to school by the students. The financial burden of providing supplies prevent many children from attending. But how much could a pencil possible cost? On the island, the average cost of a backpack, notebooks, pens, pencils, and other supplies on the list of required materials exceeds the entire weekly income of many families. Now multiply that by 4 to 10 children per family and you’ve got a dilemma for those with limited resources.

Happy group with their supplies

These girls were very happy to show off their new backpaks

Friends of Cozumel donors have made it possible for us to provide school supplies to dozens of families over the last several years. Thanks very much. Then when U.S. office supply stores began offering promotional buys of nearly free pencils and rulers, our donations really increased. The word was out. Bargain hunters loved snatching up those great deals and soon we were able to increase the number of families receiving our help. This year (drum roll, please) we’ll be able to send at least 300 children to school in Cozumel. Three hundred! We couldn’t do it without our generous supporters.

Yesterday the 2014 distribution began. The smiles and hugs of gratitude are all the evidence needed to show that your donations are making a difference. Children are thrilled to be able to go to school with their new backpacks and shoes. So sit back and enjoy that good feeling for just a minute. Then jump up and go out to an office supply store and grab those bargains for next year. We’ll need them.

~Phyllis from Nebraska

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Girl Scout Troop Donates School Supplies – July, 2014

School Supply Package

What a nice surprise to receive this in the mail!

It feels like we’re just beginning to enjoy summer yet we are only two weeks away from distribution of school supplies to 300 children in Cozumel! It’s always exciting as we prepare for the process of contacting these families and providing the children with the supplies they will need for the new school year.

This is also the time of year that the stores in the United States begin their promotions and discounts which we gladly participate in and frankly, rely upon. We had a tremendous push this past year which not only allowed us to increase our distribution from 200+ to 300 children, but also gave us a great start for the 2015/2016 school year as we already have quantities of many items for next year (including many backpacks). Here is a list of the items we will need the most. We’ve also indicated the approximate quantities we will be needing to give you an idea.

  • Two Pocket Folders [400+]

  • Scissors – Blunt [100]
  • Scissors – Pointed [100]
  • Colored Pencils (12 or 24 count) [250]
  • Blue Pens [350]
  • Red Pens [150]
  • Markers (8-12 count, washable preferred) [200]
  • Dry Erase Markers [300]
  • Highlighters [200]
  • Calculators – Basic [100]
  • Calculators – Scientific [100]
  • Thumb Drives – any size beginning at 4Gb works [50]

Along with the backpacks and supplies we distribute, we also try to provide each child with a new pair of tennis shoes. We generally need all boys and girls sizes from kindergarden through high school (prepa). If you or a friend have a trip planned to Cozumel in the coming 12 months and can fit some supplies in with your luggage we’d gladly meet you to receive these. Or, you can ship them to us at an address in the states and we will bring them to Cozumel in the coming year.

We will be tracking weekly ads and preparing lists of “hot buys” for those who are willing to help us. If you would like to be on our mailing list or want further information, please feel free to contact Larry Pedersen via email at pedersenll@hotmail.com and we’ll be happy to add you to our list.

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Reflections of Diving Cozumel and Serving Others

See the beauty of Cozumel’s underwater world and volunteers’ experiences in this YouTube video:

Worldwide Christian Scuba Divers Organization
Mission Trip To Cozumel – March 2014

It is approximately 13 minutes long. Their mission projects at Vida Abundante Church by 27 divers are featured in the middle of the video.

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Vida Abundante’s Dream Becomes a Reality — March 2014

Dreams and miracles DO come true . . . just ask Vida Abundante Pastors Salomón and Mariela.

March 2014 has been an incredibly exciting month hosting visiting mission volunteers while bringing unexpected surprises to benefit the community. As a result, the property Vida Abundante has rented since November 2013 has been transformed into an inviting, comfortable outdoor worship center. Add to that, Friends of Cozumel has received nearly all the school supplies needed to reach our goal of helping 300 children this summer.

VA Land in October 2013

Land in October 2013 prior to move.

VA Facility in March 2-14

Ready for worship service in March 2014.


Thanks to the Worldwide Christian Scuba Divers Organization who sponsored a mission effort involving 27 volunteers for a day and a half doing various projects to enhance Vida Abundante’s rental property (i.e. plumbing, painting, donating chairs). They also brought loads of school supplies. Mission Ships, a Christian cruise group of 19 women and teens, arrived for a day to share in worship, hosted a children’s festival, visited children with special needs and they donated literally hundreds of pounds of school supplies, shoes, flip flops, Bibles, educational materials in Spanish and other donations. Several other visitors arrived during these mission activities also bringing donations from their churches to bless Cozumel families.

The pastors as well as our Friends of Cozumel volunteers were buoyed with enthusiasm hosting mission visitors. Just when we thought we could relax a bit the second week of March, the unexpected happened. Vida Abundante’s prayers of many years were answered when the opportunity and resources all came together in a matter of days to purchase the land where they are currently located in Colonia Emiliano Zapata. The RIGHT place, the RIGHT time (landowner dropped the price of the land nearly 1/3 from ~$44,000 USD to ~$30,400 USD if paid for in a short time), and the RIGHT resources (donations for the down payment and offer of free legal services) allowed the church to seize the moment. The decision was made based on faith supported by a realistic financial plan.

Vida Abundante signed the purchase agreement and made the initial payment on March 14, 2014. The church is working hard to earn money for the monthly payments and is seeking funding for $13, 880 USD to help pay the balance owed to the landowner by December 2014. For more information click on the following links:

Felicidades Vida Abundante

Pastors Mariela and Salomón sign the purchase agreement

Summary of Vida Abundante Land Purchase and How You Can Help

‎Financial Plan for Vida Abundante Land Purchase

How to Make a Donation

Purchase of this land is critical to Vida Abundante’s vision of serving the community as shared by Pastors Salomón and Mariela:

“We were called to this neighborhood, the one with the most need in Cozumel. The Lord brought us here because it has the highest rate of domestic violence, addictions, family breakdown and suicide.”

“Our vision is to purchase this land as a center for spiritual help, a refuge and education center. But the costs are high. Our vision is big, but so is God. He will help us.”

The congregation celebrated the land purchase recently during a Sunday evening family service. They have already put plans in place for weekly fundraisers, member pledges and are exploring opportunities for additional funding sources. If all goes as planned and depending on donations received, they can have the land paid off in 2 and 1/2 years.

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Moving Mountains – March 15, 2014

Sharyn and Julie disembarked from the cruise ship in matching t-shirts that said “I Move Mountains.” The shirts were from Sharyn’s place of work in Texas, but the slogan seemed appropriate for their day of volunteer work with Friends of Cozumel.

Sharyn and Julie

They wanted a job to do – we had one for them!.

They showed up at Vida Abundante church to deliver donations on behalf of Sharyn’s mother Joyce. Then they said “We’ve got the rest of the day. Put us to work.” Soon they were up to their elbows in dirt, transplanting young palm trees for the church altar. After that, they grabbed paint brushes and helped transform the stained bare block walls on the pastors’ quarters.

Friends of Cozumel is so grateful for volunteers’ time and donors’ generosity, but we also really appreciate those helping us make connections with others who want to give back to the community. Sharyn and Julie showed that a couple of simple connections can move mountains–or donations–great distances. The school supplies and bras came from women in Joyce’s U.S. church. Joyce made the FOC connection through Ilene and Byron Kendrick, two of the FOC leadership team who know her through mutual involvement in Volunteer Christian Builders.

Julie and Sharyn

Julie and Sharyn also got to try painting.

Thanks to Sharyn and Julie for helping to make the connection. And thanks for your time, labor and your own generous financial donation. We can all move mountains in our own way. Contact Friends of Cozumel if you have donations but need help getting them to the island. We just may be able to connect with some cruisers coming our way.

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Can You Feel It? – March 14, 2014

Steve and Pamela Sikkila

Missionship members celebrate their day.

A clown, a teacher, a veteran, a handful of teens and their moms—they’re just ordinary people with good hearts who got together and decided to take a trip with Mission Ships. Two years ago, Deanne Slifker and Dee Walter came up with the concept of combining a girl friends retreat with a mission trip. This year 20 participants joined the group on a cruise stopping in Cozumel. It developed out of the CREW Project—Christ Reaching Every Woman.

face painting

One of the children after being painted.

The group’s day-long visit to Vida Abundante church was filled with activities, music and prayers. Part of the group also visited the new site of Casita Corazón, a place where families can bring children who need therapy for disabilities.

Through translators, Pastora Mariela explained Vida Abundante’s mission. “We were called to (move the church) to this neighborhood—the one with the highest rate of suicide on the island.”

Pastora Mariela and her husband Pastor Salomón are initiating programs to support women and further the education of children. Mission Ships organizers learned some of their needs from Friends of Cozumel and arrived prepared.

flip flops

Over 190 pair of flip flops were brought for distribution.

The volunteer group of mostly women came loaded down almost as if they were divas with a different pair of shoes for every outfit. But the shoes they brought were for children in need. There were also donations of Bibles, school supplies and more “chanclas” (rubber flip-flops) than you’ve ever seen in one place. Their financial gifts will fund summer Bible School and purchase even more Bibles.

Families from the church congregation and curious neighbors streamed into the church’s outdoor worship space to accept the chanclas being given away. Meanwhile, other volunteers offered the excited children a chance to learn to make rubber band bracelets, have their face painted, see a puppet show and receive a new toothbrush.


Lucie helping one of the children.

“This is everything I want to do when I’m older,” said 15-year old volunteer Lucie Amhein. “I love how everyone is excited and appreciative. It’s great for everyone. Us helping makes them happy, and that makes us happy.”

singing together

Vera never could act her age!

Vera Grimes used her talents as an art teacher and clown to turn childrens’ faces into her canvas for delicate flowers or fierce lions. “Poverty is overwhelming for me, but children are children and they appreciate this,” she said. “It’s good to share. They are happy. The love is amazing and I think they’re more respectful as a community (than in the U.S.).”

Mission Ships organizer Deanne loved seeing both the volunteers and the children so engaged. “This takes it to a whole new level,” she said. “I get a little emotional around so many beautiful faces. I know this is what I’m called to do.”

singing together

The group enjoyed devotions and songs prior to the childrens’ activities.

That same sentiment was shared through a new song written by Friends of Cozumel organizer and Vida Abundante church member Larry Pedersen. Can You Feel It? was created specifically for Mission Ships and will be used as a theme song for the CREW Womens’ Conferences. Vocalist Gary Larsen, another FOC leader, first sang the song, then everyone else joined it. “Can you feel it? There’s a special feeling here. It’s ever present…”

Since the group’s return home, their Facebook messages show evidence of the special feeling created during their Cozumel visit. “People are talking about it as a life-changing experience,” said Deanne.

Asked how she felt about the Mission Ships experience, Pastora Mariela said “Very beautiful, very tired, very happy.”

“This exceeded my expectations by about a million times,” said Dee, Mission Ships’ co-organizer. “I stand in awe.”

Mary Alice and Mariela

Mary Alice bonded with Pastor Mariela.

Nail Painting

Most of the children loved having their nails painted.

Belinda with Jose

Belinda bonding with Jose at Casita Corazon.

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Following the Road Signs – March 9, 2014

Steve and Pamela Sikkila

Steve and Pamela Sikkila visit Vida Abundante.

Vida Abundante isn’t anywhere near the tourist zone of Cozumel. But Steve and Pamela Sikkila followed the street signs to find the church in the Emiliano Zapata neighborhood. They’re regular visitors to Cozumel. Who could argue with leaving a Minnesota winter for a few days of sunshine and beauty on the island? This time, however, they brought along more than their beachwear.

“We saw photos of some friends taking donations to people in Isla Mujeres and that planted the seed,” said Steve.
“There is a great contrast between affluence and the less fortunate,” said Pamela. “We asked ourselves ‘What do these vacations mean? What should we be doing?’”

Steve says they started to “pay attention to the messages” and soon decided to talk with the small congregation at Prince of Peace Evangelical Lutheran Church in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. “It’s where I grew up—just 80 or so people attending on a regular basis,” he said. “I was stunned at the willingness to help.”

new shoes

Steve and Pamela Sikkila brought 36 pair of new shoes.

Their help turned into more than three dozen pairs of new children’s shoes, a pile of school supplies, and a monetary gift to help with the church pastors’ living expenses. At Vida Abundante, the pastors rely on weekly offerings and donations rather than a salary for their full time work.

After a prayer shared with Pastors Mariela and Salomón, Steve said “Don’t thank me. I’m just following the road signs.”

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The Writing on the Wall – March, 2014

Group 1 staining their boards

David Colvard paints over “WCSDO was here”.

Graffiti on buildings and walls isn’t any more prevalent in Cozumel than in U.S. cities. When it occurs, the message is typically painted over quickly to discourage additional defacement. That’s what took place at the new site of the Vida Abundante church. But this graffiti was proudly painted in broad daylight by volunteers from the Worldwide Christian Scuba Divers Organization. As everyone watched, they tagged the unpainted cement block wall with “WCSDO was aqui” (WCSDO was here). It was a positive message—but was still covered quickly as the volunteers dove into their painting tasks. They were on a mission.

Painting was just one of the many projects the group of 27 undertook to help Vida Abundante settle in to their new outdoor worship site. Their work was part of a seven day trip that had two purposes: combining scuba diving and mission work.

“So many people say they feel closer to God underwater than at any other time,” said Jim Mustoe, one of the organization founders. “You just can’t fully appreciate the awesomeness of God until you see what he made underwater.”

Group 1 staining their boards

Steve Baumetz carries roof sheeting

WCSDO trips help members leave the hotel zone to get to know the community and its people through service projects. Their first mission trips were to Roatan, Honduras and Nausau in the Bahamas. Then they contacted Friends of Cozumel to see how they could help during their March 1-8 visit to Cozumel.

WCSDO is a national organization that began about five years ago. Local chapters have formed in Dallas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York, Phoenix, Seattle and South Florida with approximately 1,000 members.

Dallas members Heather and Denny Gepford have been divers for six years. Their trip to Cozumel is their second experience with mission work.

Group 1 staining their boards

Heather and Denny creating a lot of dust

“God has done a lot for us out there so we thought maybe we should do something for him, too,” said Denny.
“You know some people just throw money at it,” said Heather amidst the dust created by a belt sander. “But this work makes it so much more real. This bench I’ve been working on—someday someone sitting on this bench will meet Jesus for the first time and that’s exciting.”

In addition to several painting projects at the church, the WCSDO volunteers also installed a section of roof, a water storage system and much needed plumbing for a restroom. They replaced windows and screens in the pastors’ quarters, repaired electrical outlets and potted plants for the altar. In addition, they distributed eyeglasses to the community and made a monetary donation to the church to help replace the congregation’s rickety wooden chairs.

Group 1 staining their boards

Dean applies a coat of varnish to the back of the cross after it was hung

Judy and Dean Hadfield of California saw significant improvements as worked progressed over two days. Even without a closed structure that is typical in the U.S., the outdoor space began to look more like a church. “It reminds me of the TV show Extreme Makeover,” Judy said. “When Dean visited the day before the group started work, he told me ‘it’s going to break your heart.’ But you won’t get that impression now. We came in with this big crew and wow—look how quickly it changed.”

“We’re having a blast,” said Dean, a recently retired firefighter who was paint-spattered, but happy. “What I get out of this—I now have a visual to pray for this specific church,” Judy said. “When you get boots on the ground, it’s so exciting to see.”

The work of the WCSDO group made an impact on the Vida Abundante church as well as the volunteers. Nineteen year old Ben Radyk from New Britain, Conn. said “It’s interesting to see how so many people from everywhere from California to Connecticut can work together. And it’s interesting to see what people here go through; life is hard here. We’re very privileged as Americans. This definitely adds perspective.”

At the end of the day, the task list was checked off, the seven-foot wooden cross was hung, new chairs awaited the next church service and fresh paint covered the writing on the walls.

Pastors Mariela and Salomón summed it up simply. “This is a miracle that this group is here,” Salomón said. “A true miracle is taking place today.”

Group 1 staining their boards

Denny and Heather check out project list


Lots of hands make for light work

Teay painting

Teay painting one of the walls

Group Prayer

The group prays for the pastors

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Worldwide Christian Scuba Divers Come to Cozumel – March, 2014

Today, twenty-eight (28) members of the Worldwide Christian Scuba Divers Organization (WCSDO) have arrived in Cozumel to begin an eight day mission trip of underwater exploration and spreading messages of hope to the locals.

The Worldwide Christian Scuba Divers Organization (WCSDO) is a diverse group of divers who explore the underwater kingdom while bringing aid, relief, and hope through their mission work. As is customary on mission trips WCSDO members will provide free reading glasses to those in need. In addition, Vida Abundante Church has been selected as the benefit church to receive much needed assistance with plumbing repairs, renovations and other projects and ministries our organization can assist with.   We’ve also received numerous donations of school supplies which will greatly aid our distribution this coming July/August.

We’ve been busily outlining the projects, purchasing materials and sorting out the needed tools so they can accomplish all the work that they hope to do.   Watch for updates in the week ahead!
For the official press release click here

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Visiting volunteers kick off the new year – January & February 2014

Roy's group

Family and friends of Roy & Kathleen Heifrin served as volunteer cruise “sherpas” transporting donations to Cozumel Feb 7.

We’re excited about expanding Friends of Cozumel mission/service efforts in 2014. Although we are not hosting a specific mission project week this winter as we have in past years, we’re fortunate many repeat experienced volunteers and new donors are visiting the island as well as Cozumel residents who want to serve the community. Working together informally we’re stretching the impact throughout the winter versus concentrating on one or two intensive weeks.

FOC is. . .

  • Initiating a NEW scholarship program in 2014 to benefit students in need continuing their education beyond secundaria (high school). Scholarships will also be available to adults who want to learn to read/write, speak English or participate in skill training to enable them to get jobs to support their families.
  • Expanding the School Project to provide 300+ children with school supplies and shoes.
  • Partnering with more groups dedicated to volunteerism. SAIL continues their community partnership and will soon post about their January 24 visit. Three NEW FOC partnerships are: VolunCations (Cruise mission group Dec. 2013); Mission Ships (Cruise mission group March 2014) and Worldwide Christian Scuba Divers Organization (March 2014).
  • Local teens volunteering

    Local teen volunteers Milton, Alex and Nuria (seated) served as Gran Bazar cashiers with FOC leader Ilene Kendrick (with Santa hat).

    • Encouraging past mission volunteers to visit families and conduct informal mission efforts on their own this winter.
    • Involving more local Mexican adults and teens in volunteer opportunities.
    • Recognizing a few organizations and families we’ve supported are becoming self-sustaining (our goal). This allows us to refocus donations and volunteer efforts to those with greater needs. So if you’re wondering why we aren’t posting info about NUAFA or the CAM School for example, it is because these organizations have become more self-sufficient over time with other sources of support.

    Special thanks to Mary White (MN) as well as Mark and Marilyn Freese (MN) who recently traveled to the island and brought donated school supplies. It feels a little bit like Christmas in January each year when the SAIL women’s Bible study group visits. They came loaded down with a HUGE amount of school supplies, children’s shoes, handmade baby blankets, clothing, fabric for sewing classes and much more. We also want to thank Mike and Susan Beech (Cozumel) for donating a door from their home that we could use with another family. This is a great example of “repurposing” something that still has a use for the right home.

    On a personal note . . . We’re very happy to be back on the island enjoying the warm weather after being in the frozen Midwest far too long. Our sincere apologies to individuals and groups whom we were unable respond in a timely manner as we addressed family health issues. We appreciate your understanding and are energized by the enthusiasm of so many people who want to give back to the community. What a GREAT start to the New Year. ~~ Karen and Larry

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    Vida Abundante Children Project – December 2013

    Pastors Salomón and Mariela planned a 24 hour youth event this weekend that began at 7pm Friday evening and included a sleep over at the new location on 80 Avenida bis. They asked if we would like to be part of the activities on Saturday and we suggested that a project building nativity scenes might be an experience to emphasize the Christmas story and provide a hands-on activity for the kids.

    We prepared kits that included the wood pieces for the stable and figurines to place inside the stable. We began the activity time by talking with the children about the story of Mary and Joseph not being able to find a room in the Inn and having to settle with sleeping in the stable with the animals where baby Jesus was born. We discussed why God might choose a lowly stable for this birth when realistically, anything was possible; and how the star to guided shepherds and wisemen to the stable.

    Group 1 staining their boards

    This group began by staining their boards to get a rustic look.

    The children had already been divided into teams for other activities earlier so we had two teams begin by coloring the Mary and Joseph cutouts while the other two teams team began sanding their boards to remove defects and applying stain. We provided plastic gloves and oversized t-shirts to ensure the stain got applied mostly to the wood. Surprisingly, we were successful with that.

    drilling holes for the screw placement

    Byron helped the children as they used drills for the first time.

    Chalo ready to hammerChalo was ready with his hammer as Mariela provided encouragement.[/caption]Once the frame was assembled, we had the children nail the roof and back piece into place. Hammers were flying as nails bent, were pulled and straightened, then tried again. This was a great first-time experience for most of these kids and they were excited to see their structures take shape.

    Each child was provided with figurines of a baby Jesus, a sheep and one other plastic animal to place into their stable. They also decorated with some bits of fabric, fake moss and grass and placed the star above the stable. The glue did it’s part to keep things in place and little 5 year old Israel held his up to Karen and exclaimed “Look, I built this all by myself!”

    We asked the group to place their nativity sets together and assemble for a group photo. It was priceless to be part of this activity with the children. I’m confident there will be other projects like this in the future and a lot more sawdust in my shop!
    – Larry Pedersen

    a completed projectThe children placed the figurines and added some fabric, moss and grass for effect.[/caption]

    group photo

    We ended up with 21 completed nativity sets so each child could take theirs home.

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