Returning from a service program can make you itch for more meaningful travel. Deciding where to volunteer next can be challenging, however. But maybe you don’t have to make the decision all over again. LeAnn Plinske and Jennifer O’Neill are alumni who chose to return to where they originally served. Here they share their experience in Ciego de Ávila, Cuba and explain why going back to “their” host community helped them build long-lasting connections, observe the progress that has been made, and build on their impact.
Why did you decide to return to Cuba as a volunteer this year?
Jennifer: “As a volunteer in St. Paul, MN, I enjoyed working with non – English-speaking adult learners. But I’ve since retired to northern Minnesota, where opportunities to do this work are limited. LeAnn reminded me that the Cuba program taps into this interest – plus the chance to learn about the culture and people. I remember my first trip in Cuba where I was happily immersed in the sights and sounds of the wonderful Cuban culture. I was grateful to be exchanging these experiences with fellow volunteers and the people of Ciego de Ávila.”
LeAnn: “After deciding to return to Cuba, I wondered – would it be as special as in 2017? Our team then was competently led by Jeff, and was a fun, energetic, dedicated group of women. But I remembered my answer whenever someone would ask me, ‘What’s your favorite adventure?’ And, I always say, ‘The next one!’ Cuba 2019 was my next best adventure. After Sunday breakfast, just the first day of my second trip in Cuba, I had time for a walk and made it to the promenade and José Martí Park where I sat and listened to a 12-piece orchestra. While walking in the area, I recognized a woman from the sewing group and I was so thrilled when her eyes lit up with recognition, too. ‘Estoy tan feliz! ‘I’m so happy to see you again!’ I felt that this was my neighborhood again.”
“I felt that this was my neighborhood again.”LeAnn Plinske
What have these service experiences meant to you?
LeAnn: “Originally, I volunteered to help improve the lives of other people and to learn about other cultures. Volunteering in Cuba with Global Volunteers gives me the chance to get out of my comfort zone. I returned because my first time was so rewarding. Both my experiences were enriching and a way to build bridges and promote understanding. We accomplished a lot with our local partners in only two weeks. Everyone has something personal to offer, and I’m proud that I do something so meaningful.”
Jennifer: “I felt happy to be surrounded by old and new friends – all working as a team toward common goals with the Ciego de Ávila community.”
Did any moments or individuals make a strong impression on you?
Jennifer: “A moment to remember was certainly a time when the electricity cut off, and we had doubts whether the students would appear for the afternoon English lesson at the center. Indeed, they came – ready to learn – even without the lights on! Our evening of conversational English started by the lights of mobile phones. The room buzzed with voices speaking English and Spanish words, with laughter, with songs and games. It was improvisational give-and-take learning between us and our middle-school-age students.”
“Global Volunteers allows me to discover a country on a more one-to-one personal level.”
LeAnn: “On my first service program, I met Lilliana at whose home I had worked building ‘a good wall’ to extend their small home. She and I had become friends in those 7 or so days I worked there. She was a breast cancer survivor and shared her story with me. She was a member of a feisty support group whose motto she carried like a badge of courage: ‘Yo no elegí enfermarme. ¡Yo elegí vivir!’ Translated to: ‘I do not choose to be sick. I choose to live!’ She passed away just a year before my second service there. The news struck my heart; how unfair it was for cancer to prevail and take her. I had believed with all my heart in Lilliana’s vibrant will to live. Walking to the church where we had worked together, I saw a swallowtail butterfly ‘flutter by.’ In my heart, I believe it was the spirit of Lilliana letting me know she was fine now.”
How do you think your experience advances understanding between cultures?
Jennifer: “This being my second trip with Global Volunteers to Cuba, it reinforced my affection for the Cuban people. Despite the political tension between two countries, it was not evident between the people. I’ve been particularly impressed by the people from our casa and have been given an insight into their strong family ties and their appreciation for education and the arts. Global Volunteers allow me to discover a country on a more one-to-one personal level.”
LeAnn: “Cuba is a country – that for U.S. citizens – has for all my adult life exuded a mystique of oppression of its citizens, a place to flee from in search of political and economic freedoms. It’s a 90-miles-close neighbor yet so distant in ideology. But day-by-day, this community in Ciego de Ávila has become more familiar. Every day, we walked from the Community Center along the streets and sidewalks familiar with sights and sounds of people who are not speaking our language, yet are greeting us with ‘¡Hola!’ as we pass, as if we are neighbors.”
Is there anything holding YOU back from a volunteer abroad experience like LeAnn and Jennifer’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. People from all walks of life explore Cuba and other countries through service all year around.
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