For Red Bank Catholic rising junior Catherine Curtin and rising senior Ava Zockoll, summer 2016 will be one they will never forget.
While many of their peers were vacationing with their families or working summer jobs, Curtin and Zockoll were forging friendships through volleyball in Havana, Cuba.
Curtin designed a program called Girls Universal Empowerment Sports Tour, or GUEST, in which she and other RBC volleyball players will visit Cuba in the next few years. The program’s goal is to eventually bring the entire RBC squad to Havana, as well as to invite the Cuban girls’ team to Monmouth County for a competition.
“If you can help people in one way, such as by sharing a sport, then you can connect on another level,” Curtin said.
Curtin, Zockoll and their parents worked with the American Embassy and Cuba Educational Travel to charter a flight from Miami for a weeklong trip to Havana. Upon arrival, they were met by representatives of Cuba Educational Travel and husband-and-wife team Pavel Garcia-Valdés and Sandra Sotolongo- Iglesias, who work to provide services to the residents of Havana.
Armed with gifts, including volleyballs, nets and jerseys, the RBC students met with their Cuban peers and played volleyball each morning.
During the matches, the American teens played on opposing teams and side-by-side with their new Cuban friends. Each Casey player said despite a lack of dedicated courts and air-conditioned gyms in Cuba, their counterparts were excellent teammates and formidable opponents. Afternoons were spent with Garcia-Valdés and an Educational Travel representative, who guided the American visitors through a series of events of cultural and educational significance, including a visit to a senior center, a salsa lesson and a visit to Fortress Morro. The fortress holds a ceremony at 9 nightly to commemorate the centuries when a canon was fired each evening to alert Cuban citizens to hurry behind its protective walls before the gates were locked against marauders and pirates.
Since the relationship between the United States and Cuba was restored in late 2014, Americans have been able to travel to Cuba, but only for specific purposes and with certain authorizations. Earlier this year, President Barack Obama loosened sanctions, allowing Americans to travel to the country as long as they complete a form declaring that the visit is for educational reasons.
Those who book trips to Cuba for educational purposes are required to plan people-to- people interactions, where they spend time with Cuban citizens where they live, attend school or participate in community events.
Muriel J. Smith contributed to this report.