Seeing Cuba Through Different Eyes
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Seeing Cuba Through Different Eyes

A visit to a school for the blind in Cuba has special meaning for one Foundation participant

On November 9, 2011, the first travelers on Grand Circle Foundation's Cuba: A Bridge Between Cultures stepped off an airplane into a once-forbidden capital city: Havana. Since then, 1,000 Americans have visited Cuba on this exclusive People-to-People Program, which focuses on intercultural exchange with the Cuban people at a pivotal time in their history.

Among those travelers was Bill Raeder of Boston, Massachusetts, who joined us in Cuba in February of 2012. Upon his return, Bill sent the beautifully written journal he had kept during the trip to Grand Circle Foundation Representative Grace Ducet. In it, he recounted details of every highlight of his trip: the paintings in Havana's Museum of Fine Arts … the movements of dancers at a ballet rehearsal … the antics of trained birds at an elder center … the handcrafts in a local market … the fruits and vegetables growing at an urban cooperative organic farm … the harvesting machinery at a sugar plantation in the countryside … and so much more.

The journal had a unique impact on Grace—and not just because of the quality of the writing. The writer, as Grace knew already, is blind.

"Having Bill in my group truly changed my life," says Grace. "His questions prompted explanations from our Cuban guide that added great value to the whole group's experience." At the art museum, for example, Bill asked his traveling companion, Jeanne Flannery, who was serving as his 'eyes,' to describe each painting to him in great detail. "In reading about them in his journal, you'd never guess that he had no sight," Grace reveals. Grace also marveled that whenever Jeanne got up to dance—which was often—Bill never hesitated to join her.

Just as Bill's unique perspective impacted the lives of his fellow participants, Grace helped to arrange a People-to-People encounter with special significance to Bill. On his first day in Cuba, Bill had asked his Cuban guide, China, if she knew of a school for the blind in Havana. She did, and she arranged a visit to the school especially for Bill and Jeanne on the final day of their program.

The visit started with what Bill describes as a "gracious meeting" with the director of the school, José, and Belkis Oberto, a teacher of deaf and blind children who had trained at Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts. Bill learned that the school was one of only three of its kind in Cuba. All students were from the Havana area, and most were day students. As he wrote, "A fleet of vans spread out across the city twice a day to collect them early in the morning and to deliver them back to their homes late in the afternoon. The only residential students are those who have an unsatisfactory home life."

The mission of the school is to matriculate its students successfully into mainstream schools—a goal not always supported by protective families—by providing them with the skills they need to compensate for their blindness. For example, all of the students learn to read Braille. Comparatively, only 10% of blind students in the U.S. can do the same, according to the National Federation of the Blind.

In his journal, Bill describes his visit to the school this way:

We were given the opportunity to visit a first-grade classroom. There were six pupils, a teacher, and the teacher's aide, an impressive ratio. The children seemed happy and greeted us. We then visited a classroom with just one pupil, a deaf blind boy about nine years old. Belkis had been responsible for this boy from when he first came to the school as an infant until he was five or six years old. She felt somewhat like a mother to him and he lit up when he realized she was in the room. He was given a reading lesson while we looked on. I found the school to be very impressive.

Later that evening, Bill and Jeanne celebrated their journey with their travel mates over a farewell dinner. "It was a great party, all to ourselves in a restaurant across town with, of course, the welcoming mojito, live music, and several courses of good food," Bill writes. "Jeanne, of course, and others—even I—found space enough to dance."

That should come as no surprise to anyone who has the privilege of knowing Bill.

Featured in our June 2012 E-Newsletter. Read the full issue here.