Student brings warmth to Cuban friends

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The holiday season is about warming the hearts of your friends, even if your friends live in sunny Cuba.

Vanessa Jelic, a Grade 8 student at Okotoks Junior High School (OJHS), collected and donated school supplies and backpacks for the fifth consecutive year for students at Escuela Rural Felix Varela Morales in the Holguin area of Cuba.

“We had a friend who worked at a hotel and then he became a taxi driver and we asked him to take us to a school,” said Vanessa. “Ever since, we stayed with (helping) that school because we created friendships and got to know each other.”

The school and the Jelics have developed a trusting relationship, often exchanging emails with students thanks to their previous visit.

“It is so much fun to go there and give them things they don’t have and then play with the kids,” she said.

Vanessa dropped off some backpacks with school supplies that first year. This year the Jelics spruced things up, bringing some holiday gifts, many with a sporting theme.

Family members tagged along, with an aunt bringing basketball and soccer balls for the sports-crazed Cuban youngsters at the elementary school. They also brought plenty of school supplies and dental hygiene materials like toothbrushes, toothpaste and floss donated by Essential Dentistry in Okotoks.

Vanessa collected the goods in various ways — eschewing birthday presents for donations to the Cuban school.

As well, staff and students at École Percy Pegler and then OJHS have helped with supplies in the past.

The Cuban school of approximately 25 students is a far cry from the environment students take for granted at those in the Okotoks area.

“It is a small little building and there are only two rooms in it,” she said. “They just have chalkboards, small to bigger desks for bigger grades, a field to play in, but a large garden in front.

“I would say they are poor compared to us, they don’t have the same stuff that we do.”

(Despite the not-so-great facilities, the World Bank said in 2014 Cuba has a “high-performing education system.”)

Although the Cubans may not have all the wrapped-in-plastic comforts that their counterparts in Okotoks have, they do have something priceless — smiles on their faces.

“They are happy with what they have and they make it work,” she said.

And they work at school. Vanessa said one of the things she has learned is how much longer the students spend in school than they do in Okotoks.

The Jelics experienced a different type of shock when she got back to Okotoks on Dec. 19. She woke up the next morning to more than 30 centimeters of the white stuff — snow, not sand — on the ground.

“It was cold,” Vanessa said with a laugh.

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