Volunteers with Caritas prepare lunchtime meals for the elderly program at Our Lady of Charity Church in Havana in this 2003 file photo. For many of the clients, it's their only hot and balanced meal of the day. It is this type of work that Friends of Caritas Cubana helps to support. CNS photo by Ed Foster Jr.
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CAMBRIDGE -- Imagine a day care center, full of children -- all well fed, well taken care of --but with not one toy, one crayon, one piece of coloring paper. Scenes such as this, all-too common in Cuba, are the driving force behind the Boston-based Friends of Caritas Cubana, a not-for-profit agency which has as its mission to aid Caritas Cubana, the social service agency of the island nation.
Each year, members of the Friends of Caritas Cubana raise thousands of dollars to help maintain church-run day care centers, soup kitchens and emergency shelters. And their involvement goes far beyond money. Board members regularly travel to Cuba in order to assess the needs of the people.
“We go down to see the programs we fund, because we have a fiduciary responsibility to see the funds we raise being used, to see new programs being implemented,” said Consuelo Isaacson, president of Friends of Caritas Cubana, speaking at the organization’s annual fundraising dinner held recently at her Cambridge home.
“But really we go to get our hands dirty,” she added. “It’s incredibly important for the people of Cuba to see that we go, we help and we return.”
“You can talk and talk about what the situation is like in Cuba, but there’s nothing like seeing the people. It’s incredibly moving,” she said.
A native of Cuba, Isaacson is one of those instrumental in the founding of the Friends of Caritas Cubana, which has its origins in the visit of Pope John Paul II to Cuba.
In 1999, one year after the late pontiff implored that Cuba “open its doors to the world,” and the world to Cuba, Cardinal Bernard Law, then archbishop of Boston, called together a group of prominent Catholics, among them Isaacson and Micho Spring.
According to Spring, who is also Cuban, Cardinal Law asked them to raise funds for Caritas Cubana as a way of helping the Church to flourish in Cuba. Originally, the organization was set up as a committee of Catholic Charities, but in 2005, Spring and Isaacson opted to launch a separate not-for-profit agency
With the possibility of change in Cuba, perhaps this year more than ever the role the organization can play in helping support the Cuban people is enormous, stressed Spring.
According to Maritza Sanchez, president of Caritas Cubana, the work done by the Friends of Caritas Cubana is invaluable, adding that without the aid of organizations such as Friends of Caritas Cubana or Catholic Relief Services, their agency would be unable to provide the services they provide.
Sanchez told The Pilot that the social service agency works with the “most vulnerable” members of Cuban society ith the elderly, with children, with those dying of AIDS, with people with Down’s Syndrome in order to improve their lives.
According to Sanchez, there are only 50 paid workers at Caritas Cubana. All the work done by the agency is done thanks to thousands of volunteers, all Cubans themselves, who have been trained by Caritas Cubana to work with the elderly, the sick, the poor.
“The situation does not get better within the groups we work for,” said Sanchez. “The poor remain poor, because of a lack of resources, a lack of money, a lack of transportation so that people cannot get out of their situation.”
“There are no real changes, which is why our work is so very vital,” stressed Sanchez. “This provides an opportunity for us to be Church to the most needy.”
“This is catholicity at its best,” said Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley. “The relationship between the Church of Boston and the Church of Cuba is wonderful. Catholics of Boston can appreciate the universality of the Church.”