In the small village of Las Flores, Belize, poverty is prevalent and opportunities are scarce, and yet, it is a place of beauty, love and compassion. This is what Mark and Cindy Rhonemus have discovered as they adopted the Central American village as their second home. It is also here, in Las Flores, where the two retired accountants have established a nonprofit called San Miguel Arcangel Missions, aiming to increase access to housing, health care and education for their newfound neighbors.
Opening their hearts to care for the people of Las Flores began with their volunteer experience through the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth’s Lay Mission Volunteer Program. The couple previously traveled with Sisters and volunteers to Katrina-struck New Orleans in 2015 to rebuild a home for hurricane victims. When the opportunity arose the following year for them to join another mission trip, this time to build a home for a family in Belize City, they were excited.
“We fell in love with Belize and the people,” Cindy said. “We had always wanted to do mission work, but never really thought about Central America.”
The couple took their very first mission trip to Haiti in 1998, shortly after the loss of a child. They continued to support that mission group financially, but they never lost that desire to go out and do lay mission work. After retiring, simplifying their lives and moving to Alabama, they searched for more opportunities to give back, eventually connecting with the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth.
With a successful first trip to Belize in 2016, the couple returned with the Sisters’ volunteer team to build more houses in 2017 and 2018. At the end of the latter trip, Mark and Cindy were encouraged to visit La Flores. They saw firsthand the lack of resources and the overwhelming need for aid in this community.
“There are still lots and lots of people there that don’t have bathrooms, indoor plumbing, electricity,” Cindy said. “We’ve been building houses for people who have lived in mud floors with sticks, linoleum and tin roofs to hold it up.”
One family they met in Las Flores was Manuel Martinez and his mother, Maria, whose small block house was started but sat unfinished, leaving them in dire living conditions. Sister Luke Boiarski, director of the SCN Lay Mission Volunteer Program, who introduced them to Belize, asked the couple if they could help raise the funds to finish building the house. With the help of friends, family, and some of their own funds, they raised the money. In January 2019, Mark and Cindy returned to the village with a new team to finish the house, including adding a bathroom and electricity. It was heartwarming to see Manuel and his family finally have a home of their own.
But housing wasn’t the only need they encountered during their time in the village. As they built relationships with the residents, they saw how children lit up for ice cream or toys, but also how many of them lacked access to quality education. They celebrated with expectant mothers but learned of their difficulty in accessing health care, such as ultrasounds and medical screenings.
“It’s so hard to believe, sometimes, that people still live the way they do when there is so much wealth in the world,” Cindy said.
Mark and Cindy knew in their hearts they could do more to help these wonderful people, so they reached out to the village leaders and to Sister Luke. The idea came to construct a two-story building — a mission house — to serve as a hub for visiting volunteers and medical professionals, as well as fulfill other needs in the community. This was the birth of San Miguel Arcangel Missions.
Through a lot of prayers, donations and even through a global pandemic and travel restrictions, Mark and Cindy saw the construction of the mission house completed in 2022. Initially, their plan was to help build the house and remain involved in the area as collaborators. As one thing led to another, though, they found themselves heading up the new charity.
“If you had told us three years ago we would have our own mission, I don’t know if I would have believed it,” Cindy said. “We always knew we wanted to do mission work, but we felt like we would be doing it with someone else.”
Still, they rose to the challenge. Through San Miguel Arcangel Missions, offering immersion experiences in Las Flores is essential to raising awareness of the needs there. Mark believes that you cannot truly be touched and called to help without seeing the need first-hand, and they can now offer that opportunity to many as it was offered to them.
“Their faith is big. That’s what they possess,” Mark said of the people of Las Flores. “They don’t have a lot of material possessions,” but they do have faith.
The San Miguel Arcangel Missions focuses on addressing four main areas — education, health care, housing and awareness. Construction and renovation of homes is still a big part of the mission’s work, and they have built or repaired more than 20 houses to date. With housing in high demand, the waiting list is long and continues to grow, but it is adjusted based on a variety of factors taken under consideration by a screening committee that includes church and village leaders.
Outside of housing and immersion trips, Mark and Cindy look to increase access to medical care in Las Flores and sponsorships for children to attend school. Currently, they sponsor 42 elementary school students, two high school students and four university students, but anticipate more students to be sponsored in the coming school year.
For the health care part, they look to eventually establish a medical clinic in the mission house to provide care to residents who would otherwise go without. The couple, on their own, has provided transportation to appointments or covered the cost of medical tests and treatments for some of the villagers they have met along the way. Being able to offer a local clinic, even periodically, would make a world of difference.
Once tagging along on volunteer mission trips, through San Miguel Arcangel Missions, Mark and Cindy are now able to host volunteers and groups of their own. In February, they excitedly welcomed a group from the SCN Lay Mission Volunteer Program.
“Though it is early in their ministry, you can already see how the community embraces them,” said Ellen Spring, assistant director of the Lay Mission Volunteer Program, who went on the February trip to Las Flores. She added there is something about Las Flores that draws people in because they feel so welcomed. With the opportunity to immerse ones self in that culture, there is also more opportunity for the village to thrive.
Sister Luke says she plans for her volunteer groups to continue working with Mark and Cindy in the future.
“We are always thankful to collaborate with the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth because that was who kind of got us started,” Mark said, though he added there is more than enough need to go around for any organization willing to help.
The couple’s new presence in Las Flores is significant to the Sisters in another way, too. The Sisters previously served in the village themselves for many years, and the library they built there is still in use.
“They always ask about the Sisters,” Cindy said of the villagers. “Even after all this time, they have that connection with them because when the Sisters were there, they really helped the community in so many ways.”
While the Sisters are no longer physically present in Las Flores like they were in the past, Mark and Cindy’s mission offers an opportunity for the Sisters to continue that relationship by sending volunteers to work with them or even through monetary support. Recently, the SCN Ministry Fund announced approval for the mission’s grant request to purchase medical supplies for the mission house clinic.
“We are very happy to have received this grant from the Sisters,” Cindy said.
With the establishment of the mission house and its resources, Mark and Cindy have found their true calling. For them, Las Flores is more than just another volunteer site — it has become their home, and its people have become their family. As they continue to grow, they hope to do even more to improve the quality of life there.
“I feel blessed in many ways because we get the opportunity to serve there and be with the people,” Cindy said. “With our mission, we have made so many friends that are like family. They have taken us in, and we are part of the culture. It’s just wonderful.”