Commentary: Volunteering in Cuba can repair diplomatic relations — on a very personal level

Regardless of where you stand on normalization of American-Cuban relations, there's no doubt that the people of Cuba can benefit from humanitarian assistance after the long U.S. embargo.

As one who has been to Cuba many times, I now prefer a more meaningful, and decidedly helpful, way to experience the wonderful Cuban culture and hospitality. I travel as a volunteer and have discovered the heart of Cuba by doing so.

Yes, it's imperative to visit Havana's iconic Malecon and tour Ernest Hemingway's house. But by leading groups of service-oriented Americans to Cuba for Global Volunteers, I've acquired an extended family in Ciego de Avila, a charming agricultural community in the center of the island.

Julio, Ramon and Maria are who I think of when I hear that Wi-Fi is finally being provided to ordinary citizens. It's the beaming faces of the children to whom we taught conversational English that I see. I know personally the effect of our governments' decisions in each of the homes I've visited.

When Secretary of State John Kerry celebrated the formal opening of the American embassy in Havana, I recalled what our inspired Cuban host, Eduardo Gonzales, said in greeting our last volunteer team: "You'll help us bring about the necessary changes our nation craves. But most important, you help us build bridges over which our governments can walk."

By getting to know Cubans as people, beyond the music, cigars and stereotypes, we can explore our commonalities and become enriched through our knowledge.

As Gonzales stated, "By working together, we realize that we all hope, laugh, eat, worry and care about our children's futures. We can easily become friends."

Of course, the diplomatic intricacies are complicated. But our people-to-people relationship certainly opens doors.

For instance, I stopped at a fruit and vegetable stand to buy some bananas, and when I went to pay, the owner said, "This is my gift to you for coming here to help out the Cubans."

I walked away with my fruit, a big smile and tears in my eyes.

For two weeks, my team of 15 volunteers taught English to 44 children and adults, assisted 10 farmers on community gardens and helped a church maintenance crew repair a water catchment.

None of us is a professional in these areas, but we gave of ourselves in our own ways. Each day and on the weekend, our Cuban friends shared cultural and educational activities with us.

They gave more to me than I could ever give to them. Every day was an adventure for our souls and minds. I look forward to my ninth Cuba trip and urge all my friends to join Global Volunteers: www.globalvolunteers.org.

PAMELA CROMER lives in Irvine.

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