The Fund is collaborating with the Cuban Association to grow their elderly care network, converting soup kitchens into day care centres offering holistic care to the isolated. We spoke with HE Dr Juan Tomás O’Naghten y Chacón, President of the Cuban Association, about this flagship programme.
What difference does partnership with the Fund make to you and your work?
The grants we have received from the Fund have made a huge impact on what we can achieve for the elderly people we serve. But the partnership brings so much more. Ours is a small association, with just over 100 members, and we don’t have the resources to bring in professionals to help with what is a fairly major piece of work. Our partnership with the Fund adds a high degree of professionalism, as well as expertise on fundraising and project administration. Sometimes the partnership is helpful simply in providing an external perspective – we have several ideas for how to continue to build out the programme that originated in discussions with the Fund. They work with so many different Order of Malta programmes, they can help us learn from the lived experience of others. We carried out a field study to the programme with the Fund in March, and it was incredibly useful to see the centres with a set of fresh eyes and gain a new perspective on their potential.
Tell us about your experience with the Cuban Association.
I became a member of the Order when I was 21. At that time we were a very small association, just beginning to regroup after many of our initial members had left Cuba in 1959. We began to re-form the Association in the early 70s in Madrid, where it was headquartered until 2000. My family and I moved to Miami in the mid-70s, and it was in the 90s that we really began our activities.
We started by supporting a Cuban priest in Honduras with social and medical programmes for the local community. Other early work involved a clinic for immigrants at San Juan Bosco parish in Miami, a hub for the Cuban exile community there. Our doctors continue to volunteer at this clinic even today. We started the Casa de Malta programme in the same parish, an outreach service to provide food and workshops for mothers and children in need. The centre is always evolving– in the time of COVID-19, we’ve been able to maintain food donations despite social distancing guidelines. The Association also routinely carries out medical missions to remote areas in the Caribbean and Central American regions.
You’ve held a range of positions in the Cuban Association and the Order more widely. How does this global perspective influence your vision for the Cuban Association?
My experience in these roles has given me a great deal of encouragement and hope for our own works in Cuba. It gives a view of the scale of need, and why we do what we do. Seeing a range of Order works helps guide and inspire us to make our programmes the best they can be. It’s been very influential for me personally to spend time with people across the Order with deep spirituality and understanding of our work. I remember travelling around South America with Baron von Boeselager, who was then the Grand Hospitaller. My encounters with him and others like him in the Order give me hope for what we can achieve.
What first inspired you to serve the elderly in Cuba?
My family left Cuba in the 1950s, and I didn’t return until 1998, travelling on pilgrimage to attend Mass celebrated by Pope St. John Paul II in Havana. About a year later I returned and met with Rolando Suárez Cobián, then the Executive Director of Caritas Cuba. He had already worked with the Order through the Federal Association, who were active on the island. He introduced me to a priest who wanted to establish a dining room for the elderly in the parish of Sagrado Corazón de Jesús in Havana. I saw the desperate situation so many were living in and we ended up supporting the programme – and soon realised that other members had quietly been supporting similar projects on the island already! We also realized that in Cuba the elderly were truly the forgotten people and so decided to concentrate our efforts on that sector. With the help of the Bishops and clergy in Cuba, we identified centres of need throughout the Island and expanded the program so that today it serves over 5,000 elderly people in locations across the island. As an aside, Piro (as Rolando is affectionately known) and Alina his wife became the first members to enter the Order in Cuba since 1959 and are the heart of our project on the Island.
What do you think sets this programme apart in Cuba?
Food is a great area of need in Cuba, as it is for the poor across the world, but the greatest need for the elderly in Cuba is to be treated with dignity. The focus of our centres is not simply to feed our guests, although that is where we begin, but to bring dignity to a person in a situation where dignity can be rare. When you speak with our guests, you realize that they are just like your own grandmother or grandfather. But when you hear about the conditions they live in, you see a very different picture. The sad truth is that most of us would not keep our pets in the conditions I have seen people living in. In our centres, we want to go the extra mile to treat our guests with dignity – we arrange hairdressers, laundry services, community choirs, and other celebrations. If a guest doesn’t show up for a few days, somebody goes to look for them. It’s easy to see the dimension these centres bring to people’s lives by treating them as individuals and caring for each of their needs.
You’re currently working to develop these services across Cuba. What difference will these changes make to the people you serve?
Our work already covers the breadth of the island, but we want to improve the range of services at each location. We provide meals in all locations, but with the help of the Fund we plan to expand to offer more tailored care for our guests – basic medical screenings, exercise and art classes, social groups. We have already converted four food halls into day care centres. Finding food is a huge concern in Cuba, and even more pressing during this crisis, and we are working on a joint venture with the Benedictines in Cuba, cultivating a farmland to provide a steady food supply for our local food halls.