BY MIRTA OJITO
May 30, 2010
MIAMI HERALD — There are people you talk to who are so inspiring, so full of life, so driven and so enthusiastic, that you feel the urge to drop everything and run to join them. Talking to Carmen Vallejo was just like that. Only I couldn’t run to her. She lives in Cuba and I’m in New York, but we are separated, it turns out, only by water and distance.
Carmen and her husband Rey Febles, give love, joy and support to about 200 children and youngsters with cancer. With the help of foreign friends, Carmen and Rey throw birthday parties, celebrate Halloween, Christmas, and produce theater and musical shows for the entertainment of children some of whom are so sick that they have forgotten how to smile..
But soon enough they remember. Talk to Carmen for a while, or visit her website at desdecuba.com/carmenyrey and you will too. I found myself laughing with her when she told me a story of one of their youngsters, mutilated by cancer, who one day said, “Today I woke up with my right foot,” a translation of a Spanish saying that means everything is going right. “Of course,” the girl went on, “I always do. My left leg is gone.”
I heard about Carmen and Rey through Luly Duke, whose New York-based foundation Amistad is one of the friends the Cuban couple depends on. Duke, who is Cuban American and whose maiden name is Alcebo Fundora left Cuba in 1960, when she was 14. In 1975 she married Anthony Drexel Duke, of the famed Duke family that made its original fortune on tobacco. Duke University is named for the family.
Needless to say, Luly Duke could live a life of luxury in the Hamptons, where she has a home, and belongs to groups such as the Garden Club of East Hamptons. But Duke has long had a humanitarian and activist streak. Many years ago, she joined her husband’s work in The Harbor for Boys and Girls, Inc, a multiservice organization for inner-city children, which he founded.
In 1995, after 35 years in exile, Duke returned to Cuba and her life changed.
“I realized the people of Cuba needed help and I was in a position to help,” she says simply.
And for some reason, Duke makes the very complicated, very political, very exhausting topic of Cuba sound new, simple and refreshing. Help is needed. We can give it. Why not do it?
Why not, indeed? The needs of the Cuban people are overwhelming: everything from toilet paper to food, coloring pencils, aspirin and underwear.
Duke has focused her funding on educational, cultural and medical needs — three areas, where, by the way, the Cuban government boasts of excelling. But Duke doesn’t discuss politics. To do what she does, she has managed to earn the trust and good will of both the U.S. and the Cuban governments and focus on her foundation’s mission: to build bridges to Cuba. She has a license from the Treasury Department and maintains good relations with U.S. and Cuban officials.
In addition to donating more than 3,000 pounds of over-the-counter medicines and medical supplies for Carmen and Rey’s kids, Fundación Amistad has, among other things, sent about 1,000 pounds of sports equipment, and, with partners, more than $90,000 in medical supplies and technical books to three medical centers in Havana.
There are people you talk to who are so inspiring, so full of life, so driven and so enthusiastic, that you feel the urge to drop everything and run to join them. Talking to Carmen Vallejo was just like that. Only I couldn’t run to her. She lives in Cuba and I’m in New York, but we are separated, it turns out, only by water and distance.
Duke said she would like to see Carmen and Rey’s work serve even more kids in other areas of Cuba, but the foundation, like others in these times of economic uncertainty, is hurting for funds. To keep afloat, they need to raise $45,000 before the end of the year.
Carmen, who is deeply religious, said she and her husband started the program after Mother Teresa visited Cuba in 1988 and asked her to take care of children with cancer. Carmen was serving as her translator during the visit.
She said her group is “tolerated” by the Cuban authorities, who don’t like the fact that she takes the children wherever they are invited, be it the home of a foreign western ambassador or a meeting with Eusebio Leal, Havana’s historian.
“What we do is beyond politics, religion and race,” Carmen said. “We just want to ease the very real pain of these kids and see them smile.”
Duke has the same approach. She has already established the bridge. Others can walk with her or build their own.
© 2010 The Miami Herald