Benton Harbor HS Interact Club goes to Cuba

Four Benton Harbor High School Interact Club members and three chaperones went to Cuba June 23 through July 3, sponsored by the Benton Harbor Sunrise Rotary. They are, from left, back row, students Quincy Sulton and Chris Scott; and front, students Qiyamah Muhammad and Tamia Clay and chaperones Sarah Stocker, Larry Jackson and M’shannon Rockette.

BENTON HARBOR — Four recent Benton Harbor High School graduates and their three chaperones said they had an exciting educational experience in Cuba even though they went after President Donald Trump’s travel ban.

They were allowed to go June 23 through July 3 because they bought their plane tickets before the ban started on June 4, said Sarah Stocker, a chaperone and member of the Benton Harbor Sunrise Rotary.

This was the first trip sponsored by the high school’s Interact Club, which was formed in November 2018 through the Benton Harbor Sunrise Rotary. Besides learning about the culture and visiting museums and churches, the students handed out books and school supplies to elementary students and helped clean up a park.

The club’s sponsor, Larry Jackson, said they were still allowed to go, but he had to call Cuban and U.S. officials to make sure they had the proper paperwork for the trip.

“The embargo didn’t really affect us in terms of traveling,” said Jackson, building trades instructor at the high school. 

He said the embargo is mainly affecting cruise ships.

Anyone who would like to hear about the trip can attend the next Benton Harbor Sunrise Rotary meeting at 7 a.m. Wednesday at the Elks Lodge, 601 Riverview Drive, Benton Harbor.

This was the first time any of the students and chaperones visited Cuba. They said it was life changing.

Qiyamah Muhammad, who graduated in June along with the other three students, said she loved every minute of the trip.

“I don’t have any favorite parts because every day I woke up, ... I embraced everything we did,” she said. “I liked bonding with the smaller children that we met in Cuba. I was excited to go to the park to play soccer.”

Tamia Clay, another student, said traveling to Cuba made her rethink her definition of “poor.”

“I come from a family that’s poor here in the U.S.,” she said. “But when I went to Cuba, I saw the definition of poor and poverty. It was heartbreaking to me the conditions that some people live in.”

She said some buildings were missing windows and doors and had lots of decay, and yet people were still living in them.

“Some of it was from hurricane damage and they just haven’t had a chance to repair it yet, but some of it was not,” she said.

They said the people were wonderful.

“They’re warm, they’re friendly, they’re helpful,” Stocker said. “They’re terrific people.”

Jackson said they spent most of their time in Cuba’s capital, Havana, except for a trip to the beach.

Stocker said language was barely a barrier.

“Even though none of us spoke the other’s languages, we were able to communicate through hands signs, through body language, through pointing,” she said. “We were able to hold a whole conversation with the people and get our point across and they got their point across, but we didn’t have the language.” 

Jackson said they are raising money for next year’s trip, which will be to Arnoldine Mission in Zimbabwe, the village where fellow Rotarian Farai Rukunda grew up. Rukunda now lives in Stevensville and works at LECO Corp. in St. Joseph.

Anyone who would like donate for the trip can go to the Benton Harbor Sunrise Rotary’s website at www.bhsunriserotary.org and click on the “Donate now” button. 

Rukunda said his nonprofit, Living Beyond Hope, has funded several projects in his home village, including building a school with two classrooms and bringing water to the school so the students don’t have to walk three miles every day to get the water.

He said his group is in the process of building a duplex for the teachers to live in, and will start on a second school building soon.

Contact: lwrege@TheHP.com, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege