By Denise Fleischer | on May 10, 2019
Journal & Topics Online Media Group, Des Plaines, IL.
Last summer, Geri Soldan of Des Plaines and her daughter Bridget shared a unique volunteer experience in Cuba. They worked in a community garden, helped with a community center’s repairs, and taught conversational English.
Geri Soldan is a special education teacher. Her daughter, Bridget Soldan, works in Washington, D.C., for a consulting firm working for the Veterans Administration. Last summer, they traveled to Cuba to teach conversational English through Global Volunteers, an international organization in special consultative status with the United Nations.
“My daughter and I both wanted to participate on a volunteer vacation together,” said Geri Soldan. “The perfect opportunity came when Bridget finished her year-long Master’s program. I didn’t know anything about Cuba — the country, the people, or the culture — but Bridget had always wanted to go there, so I was excited at the chance to explore Cuba.”
She learned about Global Volunteers while researching ways to volunteer abroad. A friend who had a similar experience volunteering also mentioned what it could offer.
Geri and Bridget applied and were told to have their passports and visas in order. During the two-week trip, their expenses included paying for meals, lodging, their team leader and people-to-people activities.
Geri and Bridget Soldan helped pull weeds in a community garden as well as teach conversational English.
Their responsibilities included working in a community garden (harvests are sold in the streets by morning), helping with the center’s repairs, making crafts with local women, and in the evenings, teaching children, teens and adults English in a community-center setting.
“On our way to the garden in the morning, we would stop for a cup of coffee for sale by a neighbor’s porch,” said Soldan. “They were welcoming, loving family-oriented people. They live a simple life — they love dancing and sports; they are well educated, but there aren’t opportunities for jobs that pay. They were eager to improve their English so they could get better jobs in the emerging tourist industry.”
Soldan said the U.S. embargo has caused families to rely on their relatives and friends living in the United States to send clothes and other needs that they are unable to purchase in Cuba.
As for the condition of the buildings there, many are in need of painting or repair, but the main problem is they are unable to get supplies. Even repairs to the community center were on hold because of the need for supplies.
In return for their efforts, the Soldans were treated to Cuban music, arts and dance, a tour of Old Havana and Hemingway’s House. They were invited to local church services and celebrations as well.
“Living in the Ciego de Avila neighborhood for two weeks gave us the unique view of the daily lives of the people. In Ciego, there are vintage cars and many still use horse and buggy,” said Soldan.
The Soldans felt welcomed, appreciated and safe wherever they went. They became friends with those they assisted and their teammates whom they worked closely with.
“It was sad to say goodbye — we would love to go back to Ciego!” said Soldan.
According to Michelle Gran, co-founder and senior vice president of Global Volunteers, the organization is a long-term partnership with people who are involved in human and economic development in two communities in Cuba: Ciego de Avila and Havana. Ciego de Avila is an agricultural community primarily growing pineapple and sugar. Havana is a tobacco growing community and huge industrial and commercial area.
The embargo enforced by the U.S. has left a major impact on the communities, but Europe has kept trade ongoing.
“We are invited by local leaders in Cuba and throughout the world. Eduardo Gonzalez, Ciego de Avila pastor and community leader, was trying to get support for his community. He invited us in 2007. Traveling there wasn’t possible until President Obama loosened travel regulations,” said Gran.
Pastor Gonzalez felt that Global Volunteers could improve farm production, expand conversational English among school children and adults and promote international understanding and respect.
Participants in Global Volunteers have served in more than 110 countries on six continents since 1984.