Volunteering abroad with a partner may lead to new directions and interpersonal connections. It can be one of the most significant experiences of your life! Gail and Bill O’Neal are a couple volunteering in Cuba who truly enjoy service together, as recorded in their program journal. Read on for a glimpse into their experience.
By Gail O’Neal
We have been fortunate to be able to travel. It has changed who we are and how we think about the world. We still want to travel, but now we would like to be more than just spectators with cameras around our necks. We want to participate, to sink into a culture below its surface, and to give back for the warm welcome and generosity we have received in so many places. So we did our homework and found Global Volunteers is an excellent way to meet our goals. When we heard about a trip to Cuba, we signed up immediately!
Our Volunteer Work Projects
Our work in Ciego de Avila, an inland city of 80, 000, was divided into three project categories: working in the Community Garden, assisting with maintenance projects at the Baptist Church and the Community Center, and tutoring people who wanted to improve their English. In the morning, our team separated to work on the assigned projects – repairing buildings, working in a local garden, and more.
In the evening, we all met up at the Community Center to tutor any and all who wanted to learn English. An open invitation was issued throughout the city of Ciego de Avila, and people came!
We discovered a wonderful group of Cubans eager for the opportunity to learn. We worked with students from age 7 through 75. We attempted to divide into groups based on fluency. Some people needed basic words and numbers; others needed actual conversations and everything in between. We brought maps, flashcards, pictures, whiteboards, songs, games, smiles and good humor to the task. By 9:00 pm when we quit for the day, the Community Center was rocking and rolling. Everyone was exhausted but still smiling.
I enjoyed my table of beginners. Emily was 7 and while she knew many English words, she was hungry for more. With pencil poised, she wrote down all of the new words from the flashcards in her notebook. And then at the end of the evening, we exchanged simple math problems.
Miriam was in her 50’s and had a smile that filled the room. She was a joy to work with; eager to repeat and remember, helpful to others at our noisy table. When excited, she broke into a string of Spanish that taxed my meager Spanish skills. When neither of us understood a thing, we would hug and break into laughter.
Osmel was in his early thirties. He was our lunchtime cook but then returned in the evening for tutoring. With a ready smile and a serious look, he formed sentences, carried out conversations and carefully corrected himself. He brought his Mother to our last lunch so we could meet her. She has much to be proud of.
The Streets of Havana
When not involved with tutoring tasks, our team was introduced to numerous groups of people and projects. We heard terrific music and drumming in Ciego de Avila, Moron and Havana, visited a hair dressing salon, enjoyed theatre performances, learned about social programs for seniors, were warmly greeted on the street and invited into people’s homes, and so much more.
Our Volunteer Team
Most of our volunteer team members (team photo below) were children when the Revolution took place, so we were curious about Cuba’s history. Many of our questions about Cuba were matched with questions about the United States. And questions still remain about what the future holds for both of us.
All in all, we learned a lot from our neighbors in Cuba. As the door keeps opening wider, I hope we can continue to work together with these close neighbors.