Four-time Global Volunteer Doris Sweet describes her service projects and some of the logistical aspects of her service program in Cuba in September 2019. She writes about the lodging and meals she enjoyed while volunteering in Havana with her grandson. Read on if you are wondering what a day in service in Cuba looks like and what you can expect.
By Doris Sweet
I had always wanted to visit Cuba, but I wasn’t interested in traveling to the island merely as a tourist. I wanted to connect with the Cuban people and volunteer at the same time. I have participated in more than 40 volunteer projects since the 1980s and volunteering is important to me. This was my fourth service program with Global Volunteers. My first three programs were in Mexico, Florida, and St. Lucia. My grandson, Don, served with me this time in Havana. It was wonderful to share this experience with my grandson.
Global Volunteers Community Partners in Havana
In Havana, Global Volunteers partners with the Cuban Council of Churches (CCC), whose excellent staff vetted the lodging and dining options (with fresh filtered water always accessible) along with Global Volunteers staff, hosted the English Conversation sessions, selected the morning service project, and provided the buffet lunch and all the transportation. Even with a fuel shortage and partially furloughed personnel, they were most gracious hosts. All the program activities, with the exception of a service project, were within walking distance in an upscale safe neighborhood, Miramar.
“In Havana, Global Volunteers partners with the Cuban Council of Churches (CCC), whose excellent staff vetted the lodging and dining options.”
Our lodging was also in the lovely neighborhood of Miramar, just a few blocks from the CCC. It is located adjacent to the coast, where the wealthy people used to live before the revolution and now are the homes that are owner occupied, embassies, small businesses, clubs, restaurants, and families operating the equivalent of bed and breakfasts.
Don and I had individual rooms with air conditioning and TV, and private bathrooms with excellent showers, as did the other volunteers (some in double occupancy). It was an operating bed and breakfast, but we were Lesbia’s only guests that week. The room, as well as the entire house, was immaculate with the clean towel arranged each day like a swan on the bed as if on a cruise ship or staying in a fancy hotel.
Breakfast – A Great Start to the Day
Each morning at our dwelling, we were treated with a variety of fresh fruit, cheese and meat platter, rolls, scrambled eggs, strong Cuban coffee with milk and sugar available and freshly squeezed fruit juice always served in time for us to be on time for the morning assignment.
Lunch – A Healthy Afternoon Break
Each day when we returned from the morning service project, we were greeted with a table laden with fresh fruits, vegetables, meat and poultry dishes, the ever-present rice and beans, and more tropical fruit juices. However, a favorite was the home-grown avocados supplied by a member of the staff. They were the most delicious smooth and creamy delights imaginable.
Dinner – Time to be Adventurous
Every evening after the English Conversation sessions, we went for a late dinner at one of three local restaurants. One was buffet style while the second offered a menu selection. We were fortunate to have some music and enjoyed wedding festivities one evening, a family celebration with some dancing, and a singer and guitar player on another occasion. However, the third “Hecho en Casa” (“Homemade” in Spanish) gets the 5-star rating for ambiance, service, and quality of food. The owner/chef prepared multi-course gourmet dinners for us, including special entrees. She and her staff were so attentive, and the bartender even provided a demonstration for making the Cuban daiquirí.
Morning Service Projects
In the mornings, Don and I volunteered at the Salvation Army William Booth “Hogar de Ancianos” (Senior Center) facility, which had approximately 40 residents. The Captain (Director) had prepared a proposed work schedule, which served as a guide for our tasks. Our team was asked to assist on various projects at the senior center, with a special emphasis on spending time with the residents. We played games, picked rice and beans, painted walls, did stretching exercises, and painted the female residents’ nails. Three bottles of polish (red, pink, and beige), one color for each volunteer to apply, as requested. This was a huge hit! Doing puzzles together was especially fun for the residents as well. The residents successfully completed a puzzle one day only to find that a corner piece was missing!
Each day ended with serving lunch to the residents. The staff knew the names of all the residents and directed us to the proper table. There seemed to be slight variations in the meals and the kitchen server identified who was to get each tray. Nursing staff dispensed mid-day medications.
On our last day, the Captain wanted to have a farewell event in the chapel. The lovely program included singing duets and drum playing. The finale included me leading “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” on the piano while my teammate Linda did the motions for the residents to move along with.
As we went to the van for our final departure, neighbors were roasting a pig to have for a fortieth birthday festival that evening that would take place after turning the spit by hand for many hours. Teams of friends were available to perform this task before the feast, but the “Birthday Boy” had already started his celebration with two beer cans in hand. What an unbelievable conclusion to our fabulous week of service at the Salvation Army facility!
Evening Service Projects
The Cuban Council of Churches (CCC) organized the “English Conversation” sessions each evening at their facilities. The discussions were organized according to student proficiency and volunteers available. Our fellow volunteer, Linda, started the week with the introductory participants and Don and I assisted the more advanced group. It appears that the primary marketing was achieved by Luis, coordinator of the project for CCC, as he was the source for disseminating information to his friends and neighbors. They, in turn, invited more and as word spread, so did the number of participants.
“The core group had perfect attendance and they seemed to enjoy our interaction as much as I did, which was a lot!”
We used white boards for communication ease, with the delightful mixture of participants ranging from high school students, through young employed individuals and the senior member was an emergency room surgeon. The core group had perfect attendance and they seemed to enjoy our interaction as much as I did, which was a lot! The CCC prepared a party with cake and juice for the final night and presented each student with a pen and an English/Spanish dictionary and in appreciation for our effort, Cuban DVDs.
Free Time Breaks
Every afternoon was allocated as “Free Time.” While U.S. citizens may not partake in “tourist” activities in Cuba, Global Volunteers provides its volunteers with a list of legal and approved activities as per U.S. government regulations. After preparing for the evening class, each volunteer used the opportunity wisely, with resting generally not considered an option. We wanted to see as much of Havana as we could! Those with a need for internet connectivity, walked to the Wi-Fi Park. Actually, it was an extra wide sidewalk in front of the Karl Marx Theater! As part of a class conversation, I inquired what places they would recommend visiting and had a lively discussion of the many choices available. This topic had multiple benefits — they were able to talk about something that they knew about and wanted to share with me AND I learned where to go and what to do when our group made multiple trips to “Old Havana”. A winning combination! We took a driving tour of Old Havana in an old classic Chevy. The last trip was to the market, an enormous warehouse structure filled with vendors selling souvenir items on the ground level and artists on the second floor. This was the end of wonderful experiences in support of the Cuban people on our service program.