guest cuba girls sports 1PHOTO:  Ava Zockoll of Bay Head (l) and Catherine Curtin (r), Atlantic Highlands, with a student athlete in Cuba.  photos by Trish Curtin.

ATLANTIC HIGHLANDS, NJ – Catherine Curtin was on a mission. The 16-year old daughter of Dan and Tricia Curtin of Bayside Drive had been to Cambodia a few years back and saw poverty and desolation on the street. It’s a vision that never left her.

Dan and Tricia have a mission. They want their daughter to have as many fine things in life as they can provide for her. But they also want her to appreciate everything she has, and what’s more, they want to instill in her a desire to always reach out her hand to help someone else in need.

The missions came together earlier this month when Catherine designed GUEST, the Girls Universal Empowerment Sports Tour and convinced her parents she should take her talent and her desire to the streets of Cuba. Knowing the country is still in negotiations with the United States to open its borders to tourism, Catherine also knew it is a country where the impoverished have not yet had the benefits of charitable organizations who want to help.

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As a volleyball player on the girl’s volleyball team at Red Bank Catholic High School, where Catherine is going into her third year in September, and knowing how popular volleyball is in European, South American and island countries, Catherine figured she could use the sport to open doors to friendship with Cuban teens. Her ultimate goal is to continue the program for five years, with a highlight being either bringing more American girls to Cuba to do the same as she is doing, or to bring a team of Cuban girls to compete in America.

Tricia and Dan readily agreed with their very mature daughter’s idea, and Trish went to work contacting the American Embassy, getting in touch with Cuban Educational Travel and setting up five days in which Catherine could play volleyball with girls in the Proyecto Sociocultural Comunitario BarrioHabana, a group that works with not only teens, but younger children and senior citizens as well.   Catherine’s friend and fellow volleyball team member Ava Zockoll of Bay Head also liked the idea, and she and her mom Nancy, eagerly signed on for the trip. Other youngsters in the Maryknoll Mission program at Red Bank Catholic also wanted to do their part; she held a fundraiser and raised a few hundred dollars in a single day so the group could bring volleyballs, nets, knee guards and game shirts in two different team colors so their Cuban counterparts could enjoy more protection and better equipment even when their American visitors left.

It went as Catherine had anticipated. There was an almost immediate camaraderie among all the teens, in spite of limited Spanish on the part of Catherine and Ava, and limited English on the part of their hosts. But it worked with smiles, gestures, and a lot of giggling and nods of understanding.

guest cuba girls sports 3On the volleyball court….not the polished wood in air-conditioned gyms the Americans knew, but rather hard cracked concrete in fenced in lots on street corners in Havana…the girls played as one. Warm-ups and exercises seem to be the same world over; all lunged, jumped, reached, stretched, and tossed with equal abandon. In the games, Catherine and Ava played on opposing sides and were matched by team members who also shared the height advantage they had, or the sturdy quick moves shorter players exhibited.

But there was more to this visit than volleyball on the street. The American teens didn’t blink an eye at the glass-less windows protected from entry to the first floor of homes with gorgeous wrought iron; they enjoyed the fresh pineapple slices, papaya and mango at breakfast, as well as the cheese or ham omelettes and toast at the casa turned B&B in the heart of Havana. They got to sample mojitos with fresh mint and pineapple coladas, and sipped coconut milk with a straw stuck in a freshly cut coconut as they walked down the street. They didn’t blink an eye at the stares and appreciative glances of men and women alike as they passed natives working on their cars, playing with their children, or sitting on their door stoops and chatting with their neighbors. They enjoyed joining the crowd who gathered at Fortress Morro to observe and hear the traditional 9 p.m. cannon being shot out, reminiscent when residents of the 19th century were called inside the fortress walls each night as protection from pirates and such. They laughed with their new friends as they sat in the back of a truck which bumped and jostled the teens to a nearby beach for an afternoon in the sun and sand. They shared gifts with their friends, and got gifts in return, when all stopped at merchants at tables lining the street a square or at a bazaar.

They attended professional international volleyball games at the air-conditioned arena in Havana, sampled chocolate at a chocolate shop in a market area, all the time improving their Spanish and forming new friendships.  

And when it was over, they said their goodbyes, boarded the plane and headed back to the United States, happier, wiser, and filled with new stories to tell and remember.

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“If you can help people in one way, such as by sharing a sport, then you can connect on another level,” Catherine explained. Trying their dexterity at a private salsa lesson with a professional teacher in the living room of a local famous artist and instructor was also fun, and eye opening was a visit to a day care center for seniors, where many, who live alone and are in their 80s and 90s, get three meals a day on the days food is provided. They lamented the one day the center was closed because there was no water.

Looking back, Catherine said the trip was one she could never forget, friendships she made she hopes will last a lifetime, and lessons she has learned have been and will continue to be a memorable experience. She feels her interaction with Cubans of her same age left the Havana teens with a better understanding, knowledge and appreciation of the warmth and friendship of American teens.

“I didn’t really know what to expect going over,” the tall attractive brunette said, although acknowledging she knew there was poverty and less freedom then she enjoys at home.  “But,” she smiled contentedly, “I know what I’ll always remember is just how nice and happy they are.”