Freedom from career demands led retired college professors Sharon and David Moore of Arizona to Cuba with Global Volunteers. In an interview with Volunteer Engagement Manager Maggie Bjorklund, Sharon and David explain how retirees can explore Cuba, experience an intriguing culture, connect and engage with people, build bridges of understanding and respect, and do something valuable and constructive while travelling.
What motivated you to choose this service opportunity for your trip to Cuba?
Sharon: We had been thinking about this for a couple of years since a friend served numerous times with Global Volunteers, and is always excited to do the next one. This past Christmas, for the first time, none of our family would be with us. So we decided to do something different for the holidays. And, we wanted to do something valuable after our retirement. We wanted to have an alternative holiday season; to feel good by doing good.
David: We found what we wanted in Global Volunteers, and having a friend sharing her stories with us the past years has been a great motivation. We just needed this extra push, a final decision to be made to actually do what we wanted to do for years.
Personally, I wanted to expand my horizons while having some adventure and enjoyment. I was attracted by opportunities to engage local people, and leave a place better than I found it. Especially regarding Cuba, I wanted to demonstrate that not all Americans were imperialists or chauvinists.
“We wanted to have an alternative holiday season, to feel good by doing good.”
How is volunteering abroad different from other types of travel you’ve done?
Sharon: In our past travels, we researched the area for historical and cultural aspects and basic language phrases, just as we did for Cuba. But our other travel was targeted to our personal needs and interests rather than with the focus of trying to help others. Volunteerism combines the aspects of a personal travel agenda with the goal of making the world a little bit better in your corner of it. I came away with a fuller heart and a deeper sense of fulfillment than any other travel gave.
David: Volunteering involves giving, while other types of travel emphasize taking. Assisting others voluntarily opens doors to interactions and experiences not possible with “drive-by sightseeing.”
What were your interactions with local people like?
Sharon: The Cuban people are among the most welcoming we have encountered. Admittedly, our interactions were very different from that of personal travel, being intensely personal and with the goal of forming bonds and building bridges. When I looked (and actually was) lost, someone always helped me. Strangers helped me negotiate curbs and steps I found challenging. There was a joy among them despite the poverty that seemed to come from the music in their souls. We were always met with smiles and “holas” as we walked to our work sites.
“Volunteerism combines the aspects of a personal travel agenda with the goal of making the world a little bit better in your corner of it. I came away with a fuller heart and a deeper sense of fulfillment from volunteering abroad than any other travel gave me.”
Sharon: Good tutoring, teaching of any kind, really, is built from the personal connections made. When there is a connection, pathways to instruction open up. You see ways to personalize and target instructional needs and how effective particular strategies are.
Was there any one individual who made a strong impression on you?
David: My interactions with all the Cuban people were very positive and upbeat. They’re open – often exuberant – when talking about what they were accomplishing. But one moment comes to mind. There was a farmer in the community garden who offered me gloves when he saw me picking weeds with my bare hands. My Spanish was as weak as his English, but we communicated well enough. When Sharon and I were in the main public square on a Sunday, the same man came up and proudly introduced us to his wife and two daughters. We learned through our halting conversation that his one-year old has a heart condition, and they were having to take her to Havana for surgery and rehabilitation. He was a caring guy doing his best with what he had.
“People can tell you about how wonderful it is to experience volunteerism, but only living it yourself will bring it home.”
Sharon: The young man I worked on conversational English with was a remarkable fellow. Dedicated, committed, hardworking, focused, and with a personality that didn’t quit. We got so comfortable with one another that he challenged me with questions a lot. I wasn’t just his “Grandma Teacher,” I was someone he could be real with and have in-depth conversations with. We managed to find ways to communicate and leave the language barrier aside because we wanted to connect and engage with each other.
How do you think your experience advances understanding between cultures?
Sharon: I believe all of us were aware that we were the face of the United States for the people we talked with, taught, and worked with. We were very aware that we were bridge-builders, finding ways to bring our two cultures closer. Mutual respect was paramount among the team, and with those we came to serve.
“We were very aware that we were bridge-builders; finding ways to bring our two cultures closer.”
David: One experience was especially surprising and memorable. Four of us U.S. volunteers, were pulling weeds in the community garden one morning when a retired teacher arrived with five young students she was caring for. They were on a field trip to the garden. One of the children’s mother, who was a housekeeper/chambermaid at a Cuban resort, accompanied them. When we were introduced to her, she exclaimed, “I never thought I would see Americans working in the fields!” I hope we changed a stereotype of yanquis all being arrogant and self-indulgent.
What has this service experience meant to you? Did it meet your expectations?
Sharon: I expected to feel fulfilled. I expected to feel good about how I spent my time. I expected to learn about a culture Americans have been insulated from. I didn’t expect all of that on steroids. Every aspect exceeded my expectations. People can tell you about how wonderful it is to experience volunteerism, but only living it yourself will bring it home.
I believe my positivity was contagious. I am upbeat by nature and very interested in learning and participating in activities new to me. Though my physical limitations kept me from doing everything I wanted to do, I found that my enthusiasm made up for a lot.
How have you described this experience to your friends and family members at home?
Sharon: It’s revitalizing at a time when some may just want to settle into comfort and consistency. I want others to view the opportunities volunteerism offers as a dynamic, energizing, fulfilling way to spend this downward slope in the life cycle. It adds dimension to life. I only wish we had known of this when our children were at home. The whole family could have gone and grown more as individuals and as a family committed to giving back to others.
“I want others to consider volunteerism as another way to add dimension to life.”
David: The service aspect allowed me to explore life in another culture in a little depth; the touring aspect allowed me to see interesting sites. It was a great blend of experiences and was run extremely well. I have nothing but praise for it. Since I’ve returned, family and friends have asked if I’d go again on another Global Volunteers program. I’ve replied with an enthusiastic “yes!”
What are your thoughts on retirees exploring Cuba and other destinations as volunteers?
Sharon: From my perspective nothing keeps you younger than social interactions and learning new things! Being open to new cultural practices, arts, foods, customs, language, and history is invigorating. Go to your volunteer country expecting the best and be surprised at how much better the experience was than you even anticipated. The icing on the cake is the giving back to others. We, and many of our friends, are extremely fortunate not to be struggling in our retirement years. Spending time trying to help others meet their goals, is one way of expressing your gratitude for the life you have.
What is your advice to other people who may be considering a volunteer opportunity abroad?
Sharon: What’s stopping you? Money? Start a piggy bank by giving up one little extravagance each week. Fear of sickness? Follow the rules for safe traveling. Don’t know the language? Learn a few phrases; you don’t need to know the language.
“List why you CAN’T serve with Global Volunteers, and then brainstorm ways you can solve the issues you raised. You CAN do it, if you make volunteering a priority.”
David: Get out there while you still can. The clock is ticking. Go for it!
Is there anything holding YOU back from a volunteer abroad experience like Sharon and David’s?
Don’t delay. Contact us to enable one of our experts to answer your questions and help you find the best volunteer option for you. Retirees explore Cuba, Ecuador, Peru, and other Spanish-speaking service programs all year around. Just do it!
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