How Did Tom & Ken Get Involved? Well…

It took us a year to meet Eddy. How? In February 2008 we became part of a tour group called “Vacation for Vision”, organized to take a group of pale, cold Ontarians to Cuba for a week at the beach, with a side trip to visit a school for the blind in the city of Holguín. The visit went very well, but the tour organizers ruffled some official feathers by bringing donated equipment to the school without first clearing it with the authorities. As well, the principal came to realize that Tom was one of only two rehabilitation professionals in the group – she was not pleased.

For us, the visit was very much a success. We knew that we wanted to return to the school on our own. Because of the faux pas committed by the tour leaders, getting there took some work. With our friend Rebecca, the other rehab teacher on the tour, we drafted, translated and brailled a letter to the school’s principal outlining who we were, stressing that we were in no way associated with the tour organizers, and that we wished to pay a return professional visit. Through friends of friends, we were able to have our letter hand-delivered to the school. Better still, we received a response, in braille, informing us that we would be welcome to visit the school again, with the proviso that the authorities approve the visit in advance.

The national anthem/el himno nacional
The national anthem/el himno nacional
Schoolkids/estudiantes Holguín
Schoolkids/estudiantes Holguín

In early 2009, we returned to Holguín and to the same resort as before. After being delivered to the school door by a resort tour bus, we were met by the principal and given a warm welcome. Another visitor to the school that day was a rehab teacher from Camaguey, mentoring the principal for her Master’s degree. It was Eddy. There was an instant connection with him. Despite our poor Spanish and his non-existent English, we hit it off immediately. Eddy and Tom not only started to discuss teaching and rehab methods, but teasing each other as well. It was fun and funny to watch. The principal didn’t know at first what to make of this interaction but then realized that two brothers had found each other.

When departing the school, Eddy gave us his contact information and insisted that when we next came to Cuba, we must visit him and his family in Camagüey. Tom decided that that was exactly what he would do. So, in November 2009, having practiced his Spanish and exchanged lots of e-mail with Eddy to determine what he might find on arrival, he went. Solo.

Eddy lived in a fourth-floor walk-up apartment with his wife, Neny. They insisted that Tom sleep in their bed while they occupied the second bedroom, where Neny’s mother usually slept when she visited. Learning the Cuban way of life was a complete surprise – community-centered, culturally rich, materially poor, and utterly different from anything found in North America. Groceries are purchased every day and many merchants walk or ride the streets calling their wares. And if you live on the fourth floor and your favourite vendor comes by? Call down from the balcony, put money in a basket and send it down on a rope. Your purchase and any change are put back in the basket and you haul it up. Simple and accessible.

The balcony/el balcón
The balcony/el balcón

As for navigating as a blind person in Camaguey, Eddy is a very competent orientation and mobility instructor. Eddy took Tom all over the city, where there are few traffic lights and fewer square intersections or level sidewalks. Eddy always knew where they were and was never lost. Tom realized that there was no way a guide dog could ever work successfully in Cuba, but that a blind person navigating on their own would always be safe. Passersby would always assist at intersections, would politely inquire about your destination, and provide directions or assistance, in a friendly, non-patronizing way. People with disabilities in Cuba are respected as full members of society.

The one drawback that Tom found was Cuban water. Cubans, of course, have all the antibodies they need to deal with their drinking water. North Americans don’t. Even with a dose of Dukoral ahead of the trip, by the end of the week, all activities needed to be planned around proximity to a functioning toilet. Poor Tom found himself “de pito”, literally “whistling” in Cuban slang.

Return visits took place in January (with the family joining us at the beach) and November of 2010, and again in February (at the beach with the family again) and December 2011, with a Cuban family Christmas celebration. The Christmas visit was so much fun we decided to visit again in March of 2012, although Tom found the weather too hot for comfort. He hardly sweats, so all he did was retain water and get more and more uncomfortable. And, sadly, we were both “de pito”.

Each visit with Eddy and the family drew us more closely together. We were able to visit Eddy’s school and to participate in household events, including things like peeling grapefruit in order to make candied pith. It sounds odd but it’s delicious. After our return to Toronto, and after consulting with Eddy, we would send money to assist with family needs, such as a computer, house repairs, etc. As well, after Neny’s son and daughter-in-law both lost their jobs as social workers, we sent money to buy him a bicycle-taxi so he could continue earning a living. Our final investment in Camagüey was the construction of a well and rooftop holding tank to guarantee a water supply to the apartment when the local system broke down and was facing a long wait for repairs. That was in January 2013. In March, we received tearful phone calls and woeful e-mail messages that Eddy and Neny had split up and that Eddy had moved back to his hometown of Bayamo to start over.

The new pump/la nueva bomba
The pump/la bomba
The tank/el tanque
The tank/el tanque

We have never doubted Eddy’s sincerity or dedication to his calling as a teacher and leader in the blind community. When Eddy decides that something is going to happen, he ensures that it does. As he settled back into life and work in Bayamo, we began financing renovations to his mother’s house in order for him to create his rehab center. It took many months and much hard work by Eddy, his friends and family, but the center finally opened in December 2014.

We are so proud of Eddy and what he has accomplished. A similar project in Canada would have taken far more than we could ever contribute and would take years to accomplish. Our relatively small donations have directly contributed to the improved wellbeing of many blind and low-vision adults in the Cuban province of Granma. We hope that El Rayo de Luz is indeed a pebble pushed downhill, starting something new in more and more places across the country. The positive response and publicity given to Eddy’s center seem to confirm our hope. As Eddy has described himself, and we heartily concur, he is “the revolution within the Revolution”!