MARQUETTE – The freedom to play is a fundamental right of children and essential to their development, according to UNICEF. But some youngsters cannot safely exercise this right. Their countries lack appropriate parks or facilities, leaving them to risk injury by playing in traffic-filled streets or other perilous surroundings.

A group of Northern Michigan University students and faculty recently took steps to remedy the problem when they helped build two neighborhood playgrounds in Havana, Cuba.

The NMU volunteers joined about 50 others from several states and Canada. The week-long project was arranged by It’s Just the Kids Inc., a non-profit foundation dedicated to fulfilling the needs of Cuban children. 

“Given the political situation between the United States and Cuba, it took about three years for It’s Just the Kids to get the necessary approvals and licenses,” said Susan Martin, professor of modern languages and literatures at NMU. “But this trip all came together on very short notice. We found out it was going to happen just three weeks before the departure date.”

Martin was joined by instructor Amy Orf and her husband, Joe Jakubiszyn; and by NMU students Kate Anderegg and Nick Zinis of Marquette, Stephanie Bromley of Bliss, and Kriya Townsend of Traverse City. Each paid $850 to defray the cost of a charter flight from Baltimore to Havana, lodging and most meals.  Â Ã‚ Ã‚ 

“I would have paid double if I had to because it was well worth it,” Zinis said. “The best part was seeing the looks on kids’ faces. They were so anxious to try out the equipment and the residents there really seemed to appreciate what we were trying to do. It was nice to have the chance to make a difference and experience some of their culture.”

Havana has so-called play areas, but they consist primarily of vacant, dusty lots. Martin said there is one large park in the center of the city, but children are charged to play – a fee most cannot or choose not to pay – and there is a 10-minute limit.

The volunteers worked with local Cuban families to transform two sites into state-of-the-art playgrounds. They dug post holes, then assembled and installed swing sets, playhouses, crawling tubes, towers and climbing structures. Â Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ Ã‚ 

“There was a preschool right next to where we were building the second playground,” Anderegg said. “When we first got there, all the kids had was a dirt yard. If they were lucky, they might have a ball to throw around. It’s kind of odd because all kids go to school and they wear these pristine uniforms, but they have nowhere to play.”

The volunteers did not have time to complete a third playground, as scheduled, but they marked the site and trained Cuban workers to install the equipment.

Most of the construction took place in Regla, a historic district where Martin said slaves were once quarantined upon arrival. It is off the tourist track, densely populated and poor. Â Ã‚ Ã‚ 

“To give you an idea of their economic situation, when we disassembled the packages of equipment, I asked some of the Cubans what they wanted us to do with the garbage,” Orf recalled. “They said, ‘Oh, that’s not garbage. We’ll take that and find a way to use it.’ They didn’t want to throw away or waste anything.”

Despite the political tensions between countries, the NMU group did not encounter any type of resistance or negativity. Martin said the Cubans they met had no problem differentiating between their feelings toward the U.S. government, which are often critical, and their feelings toward the American people, whom they are friendly toward and seem eager to accommodate.

The week concluded with a ribbon-cutting ceremony complete with singing, dancing and costumes. Martin collected addresses in the hope of establishing pen-pal relationships between Marquette and Cuban children.

As a lasting symbol of their involvement, the NMU participants etched their names and Marquette, Michigan in fresh concrete before it was covered with soft filler. The imprints, like their memories of this humanitarian effort, will endure. The volunteers helped provide a simple pleasure that some children – in this age of high-tech games and gadgets – take for granted.

 Â“What we did there will touched many young lives and it will affect those children every day,” Martin said. “No matter what they hear about our country, they will have the memory of watching us work on these playgrounds and the joy of playing in a safe and fun environment.”

Prepared By
Kristi Evans
News Director