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Reaching out to Cuba's elderly

Cuban Association of Malta says many seniors struggle to fend for themselves

Wednesday, June 27, 2012
Tom Tracy - Florida Catholic

Archbishop Thomas Wenski, now chaplain of the Cuban Association of the Order of Malta, and Father Daniel Kubala, pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle in Miami, are seen here during a February 2011 visit to the Church of Nuestra Senora del Rosario in Palma Soriano, home to one of the centers for the elderly supported by the Cuban Association of Order of Malta.
MIAMI — While the economic downturn has been a hardship for Americans, it also had an impact on the most vulnerable in Cuba: the elderly, who increasingly struggle to fend for themselves, according to regional members of a Miami-based charitable foundation.

Table is set at the feeding program for the elderly operated by Sacred Heart Parish in the Los Pinos section of Havana. It was the first lunch and socialization project for the elderly officially funded by the Cuban Association of the Knights of Malta, and it began in 1999.
“It is a well known fact that the people in Cuba have been suffering extreme poverty as part of their daily living for decades, and the conditions are currently worse than ever,” said Fernando García-Chacón, a Coral Gables resident and president of the Cuban Association of the Order of Malta, which supports mission projects and charitable outreach in several Caribbean and Central American countries as well as in Miami.

The Cuban Association of the Order of Malta provides some financial aid to a network of 60 parish-based soup kitchens across the island of Cuba, along with several health clinics, religious education and seminary programs. But local fund raising to support these programs has been hampered by the global financial crisis affecting so many in Florida.

Financial hardship here translates into worse hardship in Cuba, where many depend on cash remittances from family abroad to help make ends meet. Cubans with no outside help are finding it hard to put food on the table with Cuba’s local economy in stagnation.

“People with relatives in Cuba know these facts and they want to give something back to these poor communities,” said Chacon, born and raised in Havana, whose family founded a small town named Santa Maria del Rosario in the outskirts of the Cuban capital. They were also active members of the Order of Malta for many generations.

With more than 100 members in South Florida, Washington, D.C., Spain and elsewhere, the Cuban Association of the Order of Malta traveled throughout the island last year and again for the papal visit this year, led by Miami Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski.

In 2011 especially, the Malta Knights and Ladies explored firsthand the situation of the elderly and poor in towns throughout Cuba. For Chacon, the papal pilgrimage was his second trip back to Cuba since leaving in 1961.

“In Cuba the elderly are very poor, same as everyone else in the island,” he said. “Our soup kitchens are for people 70 years of age or greater, and of course there is a lot of turnover.”

The Order of Malta’s soup kitchens and services are overseen by the local priest or pastor in charge.  In order to participate and receive help, a study is made to ensure that only very impoverished seniors can access these programs, he said, which offer breakfast and lunch five days a week. “At times, we also send them away with food for the weekend. When possible we have a place for them to watch television, play dominoes or provide a simple service like a hair cut.”

The association is hoping to find a means to double the number of senior citizen support centers in Cuba, including a medical component to support medical care for elderly with diabetes. In late October, the Association will host its annual White Cross Ball, a gala fund raiser supporting Malta’s charitable work in the region. The guest of honor will be Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, who serves as president of the Rome-based Caritas International.

The Cuban Association of Malta has an annual budget of about $250,000. The organization’s leadership says that between $3,600 to $5,000 can support each elderly center in Cuba for one year. The Malta projects in Cuba comply with the Cuban Assets Control Regulations of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, and have obtained all necessary licenses.

“These people are between 70 and 90 years old, without family, living alone, with no financial or other assistance,” said Juan Calvo, a Knight of Malta and spokesman for the Cuba Association.

The feeding centers are sustained through cash purchases made in the island and are documented and monitored by the local churches, he said. In contrast, sending food directly to Cuba had proven complicated.

“Our centers are not only a place to meet for a meal but also a gathering place for the seniors to meet other people like themselves,” Calvo said, adding the programs are nourishment not only for the stomach but the overall well being of senior citizens. “It shows what the Catholic Church wants to do in terms of helping the poor and elderly, bringing people in contact with the local priests and have spiritual support as well.”

Donations can be sent to:
Asociación Cubana de la Soberana y Militar Orden de Malta
2950 SW 27 Ave., Suite 300
Miami, FL 33133
or visit Malta on the web: www.ordendemaltacuba.com
Malta is hoping to find area donors who are able to support about 20 elderly Cubans a year with a donation of $1,000, according to Calvo, a native of Cuba who emigrated to Venezuela and then the United States. He made his first visit back to the island in 52 years during Pope Benedict XVI’s pilgrimage to Cuba in March.

Calvo said he was shocked by the decaying and poor conditions in Havana, especially outside of the touristic Old Havana district. “It struck me to see how people can live in such deteriorating conditions, but they don't know any better; they don't have a means of comparing their situations with the outside world.”

Founded in Jerusalem in 1048, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM), or Order of Malta, is a Roman Catholic lay religious order headquartered in Rome. The Order works in the field of medical, social care and humanitarian aid in over 120 countries, supported by the diplomatic relations it currently has with 104 nations.

In Miami, the Order of Malta also supports outreach programs and religious education at St. John Bosco Parish and St. Ann Mission in Homestead. Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski recently succeeded the late Bishop Agustin Roman as head chaplain to the Cuban Association of Malta.

Members of the Cuban Association of the Order of Malta view the kitchen of the feeding program for the elderly operated by Sacred Heart Parish in the Los Pinos section of Havana during a visit to the island in February 2011.

Comments from readers

MARQUESA DE RIALP - 7/1/2012 7:26 AM
Maravillosa labor de la Asociación Cubana de la Orden de Malta