Glenda Biggerstaff’s recent trip to Cuba was special for two reasons.
The Greensboro woman was part of the first legal American volunteer team to Cuba after travel restrictions were eased. And she got to serve with her grandson, Andrew Salmon.
Biggerstaff has volunteered in Romania three times. Back when Salmon was 8, he told her he wanted to go with her on an international volunteer trip one day.
Biggerstaff, 67, never forgot.
She and Salmon, 19, also from Greensboro, recently served on a team through Global Volunteers, a U.S. provider of Cuban volunteer teams. No other non-governmental organization is offering volunteer opportunities in Cuba, said Michele Gran, cofounder and senior vice president of Global Volunteers.
“We pioneered international service programs with short-term volunteers in 1984, and since then, we’ve pursued development partnerships with communities where the U.S. has had troubled relationships — Vietnam, Romania, China, Russia, Indonesia, for instance,” Gran said. “Cuba has been on the top of our list.”
Biggerstaff and Salmon volunteered in Ciego de Avila, Cuba, where they taught conversational English and helped with tasks such as gardening, sewing and working on a construction project at the church that hosted their group. They were there May 17 through 30.
Biggerstaff and Salmon were part of a team of 15, and though several couples participated, they were the only grandmother/grandson duo.
“We’ve always been travel buddies, but we had never been on a volunteer trip together,” said Salmon, a sophomore at UNC-Asheville majoring in literature.
Salmon said the conditions in Ciego de Avila were poor, with decrepit and crumbling buildings, exposed sewers and undrinkable tap water that carried cholera. Stray dogs were everywhere, with dead ones often rotting in the streets. Cars were a rarity, and he and his grandmother walked most places.
“Their infrastructure hasn’t been updated in decades, and I could tell,” Salmon said.
Despite the harsh conditions, both Salmon and Biggerstaff described the people as incredibly warm and wonderful.
“We were treated like family, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that,” Salmon said. “They were kissing and hugging us before we even got the chance to introduce ourselves, and they fed us food and gave us incredible handmade gifts.”
Salmon said it was the most hospitable environment he had ever been in.
“I think the people really appreciated us teaching them English,” Biggerstaff said.
They became extremely close to the people, she said.
“It feels like we left behind family,” she added.
Because he was the only one on the trip younger than 35, Salmon said, many of the young people flocked to him, and he became close friends with some of the younger men, especially a young man named Tato. The two became friends within days, playing basketball and going dancing.
Salmon was also touched when another young man, Juan Carlos, made him a incredible papier-mache swan figurine.
“The figurine was made with from 23 sheets of paper, folded into over 800 individual pieces, no glue was used, and it took him 10 hours to finish the project,” Salmon said. “This was all in a country where the average income is less than $20 a month, and all manufactured goods, including paper, are in short supply.”
Salmon told Juan Carlos it was the best gift he had ever been given.
“That was the most rewarding moment of the trip, but my lasting relationship with Tato, as well as some other young men by the names of Alejandro and Junior, was the most rewarding aspect of the trip,” Salmon said.
Salmon said he also realized how lucky he is to be an American.
“I can openly criticize the government, and I don’t need to worry about getting in legal trouble over it, our infrastructure is light-years ahead of Cuba’s, and I don’t need to worry if the tap water I just drank will make me horribly ill,” he said. “I took these things for granted, and I will never take them for granted again.”
Biggerstaff said she felt honored to be a part of the first legal team to volunteer in Cuba.
“There’s only one first time,” she said. “It was wonderful to be the first to show those people that Americans love them and want to help them.”
Global Volunteers plans to send more teams to Cuba.
“Unless the current travel and trade agreements are reversed, we expect the numbers of Americans who wish to make a genuine, personal commitment to the Cuban people through Global Volunteers will continue to grow,” Gran said.
Biggerstaff said she and Salmon hope to go back to Cuba next May.
“We’ve been everywhere from Italy to Alaska, but we had never done anything this meaningful before,” Salmon said. “It made us both better people.”
Contact Jennifer Atkins Brown at (336) 574-5582.