Author Archives: Phyllis Larsen

Smiles of Gratitude: School Supply Distribution, August 2022

Students and their families dressed in their best clothes and arrived on foot or clinging together on a moto. They waited patiently, masks in place, to receive their school supplies. But beneath their masks they were smiling. They saw piles of brightly colored backpacks to choose from and stacks of notebooks, pencil pouches and geometry sets. The long list of supplies required by schools would no longer be a barrier to attending school. 

Breaking Records

After a two-year hiatus for Covid-19, students are back in school with face-to-face learning. Nearly 800 Cozumel students recently received a fresh supply of the tools they need to continue their education. It’s been a record-breaking year. The expanded number of students served required a carefully organized effort: connecting with the families, shepherding them through the inscription process, and staffing the distribution of backpacks stocked with the specific supplies needed for each grade level. A total of 51 local and visiting volunteers helped 790 students through the process. Twenty percent of those students have special needs.

“While we may have been able to do this with fewer workers, we chose to include local volunteers—27 of the 51—primarily to involve students and/or parents who benefit from this program,” said Karen, an FOC leader.

A few years ago, growing this program to help 500 students in need was a dream of Byron’s, one of the regular volunteers from Texas. His idea of a dramatic increase in the number of students served was not readily embraced by the other core volunteers.

“My head is still spinning from the 800 number,” Byron said. “But as I recall, the reaction to my proposal of 500 was everywhere from ‘that’s funny,’ to ‘how on earth could we manage that’?”

But FOC did indeed manage 500 plus nearly 300 more.

“It just takes, faith,” Byron said.

Shifting Trends

• The number of students served overall has increased. Numbers jumped from 179 in 2013 to 504 in 2017 to 790 in 2022. 

• Students appear to be staying in school longer. Students were mainly in primary grades in the early years while this year 44% were in grade 7 and above. 167 students are now in high school and university programs.

• Students are interested in higher education, but often have to choose between going to school and working to support their families. FOC provides financial becas (scholarships) to all first semester prepa (high school) students and selected university students. 

• Parents and older youth value the ability to read, but some have trouble seeing. As a result, FOC provided reading glasses to 63 people during this year’s school supply distribution. 

24 Years and Counting

Friends of Cozumel founders have supported education for more than 24 years. We began working with Chrysalis in 1998 and expanded to support NUAFA in 2002. At this time, Friends of Cozumel was formed with goals to encourage education and offer support to families in need. These early partnerships with other established nonprofits helped chart a course for what eventually became FOC. Although NUAFA ended operations and Chrysalis recently merged with Friends of Cozumel, our focus on education, support of families and community, and volunteerism has not changed.

You Make a Difference

Donors provide in-kind contributions of school supplies while others make financial donations that are used to purchase paper products and other items locally. Many volunteers bring small sized donations in backpacks via cruise ships while others come to vacation and assist us in service projects. 

Bob and Linda from Oklahoma have donated school supplies in past years, but this was their first time to come help with the distribution process. 

“We said we ought to go help. Sometimes the Lord prompts us to do that,” said Bob. 

Linda agrees. “We saw the need and it’s been exciting to see the kids pick out the backpacks they want. The looks on their faces—you can tell they’re trying to tell me thank you. I think they really appreciated the help.”

Now Collecting School Supplies  

This year’s distribution is complete, but work has already begun to collect enough school supplies for next year. A list of needed supplies can be found here, but these items are especially needed:

Large (19”) backpacks for women

Scientific calculators

Spanish only dictionaries for elementary students

Spanish/English dictionaries for upper level students

Black dry erase markers

Yellow highlighters

Special Thanks to Supporters

Whether it was a handshake, or thanks spoken in Spanish or English, the smiles from students and their family members said it all. We’d like to pass their appreciation on to you. 

“It’s our wonderful donors throughout the year make this project possible,” said Karen.

Muchisimas gracias from 790 students, their parents and from all of the volunteers who appreciate your support.

Diana’s Smile: Honoring Diana Marcela Pedersen Vance, Sept. 16, 1987-Sept. 16, 2021

Being part of a close-knit family was always something a young Diana Marcela longed for. Although she was born into difficult circumstances in Sonson, Colombia, her wish came true when she was adopted at age 11 by her parents, Karen and Larry Pedersen. She lived a life of joy and kindness until her death on her 34th birthday from complications of a stroke and pancreatic cancer. 

Diana’s presence always lit up a room. Her laughter was contagious, especially with her brothers around the family dining table. She was also determined, and maybe a bit stubborn, but the quality that consistently stood out to everyone who knew her was her smile. 

Diana was a hard worker. She had to learn English and a whole new way of life when she came to the U.S. She graduated from Waukee High School in Iowa and attended Des Moines Area Community College, became a Certified Nursing Assistant and a certified SCUBA diver.  She and the boys relocated from Iowa to Florida three years ago.  She was a valued employee at several jobs while also serving as the U.S. Friends of Cozumel Coordinator receiving donations, handling bank transactions, and buying supplies to be transported to Cozumel, Mexico. Although Cozumel was like a second home to her, Diana was fiercely proud of her native country and being a citizen of both Colombia and the U.S. 

Being a single mom wasn’t easy, but Diana was always more likely to look for people who needed help rather than to ask for help for herself. She began volunteer mission work with youth in Mexico at age 13 and continued throughout the rest of her life. She traveled to Mexico two or more times a year, volunteering her bilingual skills to translate for Friends of Cozumel missions, gathering and distributing school supplies and food to people in need, and helping with Bible school and educational workshops. 

One of her greatest joys was being a mother to Braylon and Camilo. Diana loved creating family fun days and was a master at preserving memories by taking hundreds of photos with the boys and her friends. She was the queen of selfies, a natural beauty.

Diana had great faith in God and a loving and generous heart. One of her passions was helping other single mothers. She began donating in-kind home goods to Sheridan House to help single moms in South Florida set up their own independent living situations. Her family will continue supporting Sheridan House by donating home goods. 

The relationships with her sons, family and close friends were the parts of life Diana treasured most. She is survived by sons Braylon Tindrell and Camilo Young, parents Larry and Karen Pedersen of Cozumel, Mexico and Weston, Florida; siblings Christian and Maggi Pedersen of Des Moines, Iowa, Van Pedersen of Denver, Colorado, sister Patricia Grisales of Medellin, Colombia, as well as close friends she chose as sisters; and godparents Gary and Phyllis Larsen of Lincoln, Nebraska. Family was everything to Diana and she adored her many aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, grandparents and dear friends across the U. S., Mexico and Colombia.

Diana’s sons were always her first priority and many people have stepped forward to make sure they will be well cared for. The boys have recently transitioned to the care of their fathers in Iowa and Diana’s family will collaborate with their dads to continue being an important part of the boys’ lives. The family is setting up trust funds for the boys to help with special daily needs and to ensure they have future educational opportunities or job training.   

Diana’s giving heart and her positive impact will continue through Diana’s SMILE, the Single Mothers Independent Living Endowment. Memorial gifts will create a fund to benefit single moms in Cozumel through support for medical expenses, food, and job training that will help them learn skills to support their children. Memorial contributions may be made in three ways: 

1) Online, log into; pay to; add a note: Diana’s SMILE.

2) Make checks out to Friends of Cozumel. Note in the memo line: Diana’s SMILE. Mail to: Friends of Cozumel, 2783 Kinsington Circle, Weston, Florida 33332.

3) Make a U.S. tax deductible donation with a check payable to Nacogdoches Community Church (not Friends of Cozumel).  Note in the memo line: Friends of Cozumel—Diana’s SMILE. Mail to: Friends of Cozumel, C/O Hettie Legg, 817 N. Mound Street, Nacogdoches, Texas 75961. 

Although her family and friends are heartbroken to lose her at such a young age, they feel incredibly blessed to have had Diana in their lives. Celebrations of Diana’s life will be scheduled in the Weston, Florida area and Des Moines, Iowa. Dates are still pending but are expected to be mid-November to mid-December. Small informal gatherings will also be held In Cozumel, Mexico and a visit to Diana’s sister and others in Colombia is planned for 2022.