The Ascension ProjectThe Ascension Project

When the Gift Is Pure

When the Gift is PureThroughout my career as an educator and youth development worker, I have led student trips to 15 different
countries. All 15 trips remain vivid to me, but the 2001 Boys Club of New York experience in Cuba has
special resonance.

The mission was meant to be part adventure, part outreach. The boys spent months raising more than $5,000
to purchase athletic, academic and medical supplies for their Cuban counterparts.

For two weeks before we left, we studied Cuba's history and its complex relationship with the United States.
Professors gave lectures and led discussions. Our boys fully understood that their goodwill mission may not
be as well-received as they had hoped.

With approval from the U.S. State Department, we left early one morning from JFK. We arrived in Havana
just after dawn. Our early-morning arrival allowed us to breeze through customs, and although all our papers
were in order, high-ranking airport officials closely monitored the review of our documents and inspection of
our bags. We were certainly objects of curiosity, and by the time we got to our hotel, the news of our arrival
brought a crowd to welcome us.

We felt that welcome and saw those crowds for the next 18 days, wherever we were to travel. The boys, who
had been chosen because of their success in the classroom and on the basketball court, competed against
many of Cuba's top athletes in exhibition games. Fans followed our progress from one arena to another. And
even though we were playing in some of the countries' most prestigious venues, the facilities themselves, all
of them, were in poor repair.

We were traveling under the banner of "amistad e igualdad," friendship and equality, which turned out to be apt.
We made friends easily, and found Cuban people to be warm and genuine. They harbored no ill-will toward
Americans, and spoke openly of their hope for the day when relations with the U.S. could be normalized.

Meantime, Cuba's poverty and palpable despair were not lost on the young visitors from New York. These
boys live at the margins of their own society, and they know first-hand what it means to struggle. Even so,
delivering the supplies to elementary schools, clinics and training centers wasn't just an act of largesse; it
was humbling. So too was witnessing, day after day, in the countryside and in big cities, the specter of
scarcity. Everything in Cuba is in short supply, and every purchase of even the most basic staple (water, food,
soap) or service (bus, train) requires waiting in a long line. Shampoo, razors and chewing gum, little things
boys hardly think about, are what most Cubans consider luxuries.

It didn't take long for the significance to sink in. The boys grasped how merely getting through the day
required a quiet measure of resolve. One boy summed it up perfectly when he said, "You really have to be
patient when you are poor." But they also saw clearly that one result of this patience and fortitude was a
strong sense of community.

What still haunts me about the Cuba trip happened on our second to the last day there. That was when
we played our third game against Havana's Capitalinos, a professional team made up of former national
team members. We had split the first two games and a healthy rivalry had developed. The game had drawn
city-wide interest, and we were all anticipating a spirited and hard-fought contest.

Our boys played their best basketball of the trip. They started strong and were ahead by 20 before the end of
the first half. You could sense their pride; they were playing well and looking fine in new uniforms and new
sneakers. The Cubans' uniforms were, in fact, not uniforms at all. Some of their players wore sneakers held
together with duct tape. And while they certainly didn't look formidable, they regrouped at half-time and
came out in the 3rd quarter with a new sense of urgency.

The Capitalinos were a little older and more than just a little wiser than the Boys' Club team. As we began
the fourth period, our lead had been reduced to 4. The players were panicking, and there was little we could
do to help. At the buzzer, the Cubans won by a comfortable 10-point margin.

The boys were disappointed, but as it turns out, not defeated. As the adults assembled with the Cuban
coaches, officials and members of the media at center court, our boys and the Cuban players were busy
chatting and exchanging addresses and phone numbers. An hour later, we couldn't help but notice that
most of our boys were standing on the court in their underwear.

In private, long before the game, the team decided to give away their uniforms, sneakers and other articles of
clothing to their opponents. These kids, who've always had to make do with very little, and who treasure the
even most meager of possessions, willingly and even joyously gave them away to others whom they knew
needed them more.

It was a act of purity that moves me still. And as one of our boys declared, "We are all brothers, brothers
from different mothers," I knew the bridges we had built would stand the test of time.

Brad Zervas, Director, The Ascension Project
About Brad Zervas