Bonds of Friendship

When Ania Joszczyk ’23 was considering service travel programs, the goal of one particular experience caught her eye.

“When I went on the Global Volunteers website, I read that the main objective of the program in Cuba was to create bonds of friendship,” says Ania. “At a time when relations between the United States and Cuba are strained, building connections seemed important to me. I felt that any opportunity to engage in service work while creating relationships with the Cuban people would be really valuable, and that became my goal.”

With support from a Robert Keyes Poole ’50 Fellowship, Ania traveled to Havana last summer to build bonds and spread good will through service. Ania’s travel cohort was comprised of a dozen people from across the United States. Most were retirees—her group included retired doctors, teachers, and an engineer. Ania and her brother, Chris ’25, were the only youth volunteers. While some workers were assigned to painting and repairing local buildings, working in a community garden, and sewing and knitting items to be sold by a women’s crafts collective in support of women working toward economic self-reliance, Ania and Chris worked with local nursing home residents each morning, and local school children each afternoon.

“We started each day at the Cuban Council of Churches, which coordinated our service work,” Ania explains. “There we would share a motivational message and journal. The journal essentially helped us process our work from the previous day. The message helped us define what we wanted to be like as a volunteer team.”

Ania’s work at the nursing home varied from day to day. And while she did spend a day working in the kitchen sifting rice, the majority of her time was spent with the elderly residents.

“Our team leader was a physician who specializes in elder care, so she was a great resource in guiding us through our interactions,” says Ania. “She also led groups through stretching and physical exercises set to music. I helped guide the residents and encouraged them to participate in the movement activities.”

More meaningful, however, was Ania’s “hands-on” work.

“I gave a lot of hand massages. The residents don’t get a lot of visitors there, so physical touch and personal connection really means a lot to them, and really makes them feel cared for.”

After spending mornings with Cuba’s elders, Ania and Chris shifted their focus to its youth, and their desire to learn English, the language many in the country see as the international language of opportunity. With input from the retired teachers in their volunteer cohort, Ania and Chris developed their own curriculum and led middle-school-aged children through lessons designed to improve their conversational English.

“Many of our lessons were built around games,” Ania explains. “What was really interesting was that they all know English words and recognize them in writing. But they needed our encouragement and support to put the words all together and to speak them aloud. The challenge was to first learn and then become comfortable with pronunciation. We would write sentences on a whiteboard and take them through them word by word, modeling the pronunciation along the way. One of the activities I came up with involved drawing a simple squiggle on a white board, then having students turn the squiggle into a more complete drawing. I would then have them use their English words to describe aloud what they had drawn. I think this was their favorite of all their activities.”

Each day also included opportunities to soak up Cuban culture by visiting markets, museums, and the artist José Fuster’s famed mosaic wonderland, Fusterlandia. In the end, however, it was the human moments—building the bonds of friendship—that touched Ania most deeply.

“Working with the elderly in the nursing home is something I’d never done before. For the most part, the residents spoke very little English, and I spoke very little Spanish. We communicated with simple words and gestures. There was a moment when a woman was telling me about her life as an athlete. She didn’t realize that the limits of my Spanish prevented me from fully understanding that she was not just an athlete, she was an Olympian. A bi-lingual member of the nursing home team saw that I was missing that important piece of the communication and worked with us to bring us to that understanding. I was so amazed by her Olympic achievements, but also amazed by the power of working as a team to overcome communication barriers. That was a moment that truly stuck with me.”

Established in memory of Robert Keyes Poole '50, Taft faculty from 1956 to 1962, Poole Fellowships are awarded each year to enable Taft students to engage in travel or in projects consistent with Mr. Poole's lifetime interest in wildlife and the environment.