Two stones and an old ball are enough for the sometimes barefoot youngsters of Old Havana to play soccer, a sport pursued with more and more passion on the island, and which the Barriohabana project uses as an attraction to get children and teens involved in the community.

In Old Havana, the historic district of the Cuban capital, the growing crowds of tourists frequently collide with youths running and playing soccer in the streets. In many cases the kids come from poor families without the wherewithal to pay for extracurricular or cultural activities outside of school hours.

"The Barriohabana program was created with the idea of showing those children and adolescents that there are better things to do than spend their afternoons lolling on street corners and that they shouldn't waste time when they have so much energy and possibilities for a better life," Pavel Garcia, promoter of the three-year-old program, told EFE.

Pavel and his wife Sandra, natives of Old Havana and parents of two children ages 6 and 4, once went around the neighborhood streets trying to get kids to take part in cultural activities or visit one of the museums in this touristic center, but they always got the same negative answer.

"They always said museums were't for them, that they were for intellectuals or for visitors to Havana," said the creator of Barriohabana, which is financed with donations from institutions and small contributions from private individuals.

The Garcias soon realized that what could interest the youngsters was soccer, and after suggesting the organization of a championship tournament with the participation of all the schools in the neighborhood, some 100 youngsters eagerly set about cleaning up a soccer pitch, painting the areas of the playing field and putting up posters.

In the Casas de Abuelos, where grandkids spend the day with their grandparents when their parents are at work, the youngsters began to play chess with the elders, which opened Barriohabana to other sports and activities.

"I like playing chess because it's a fun game that also helps you learn," said 6-year-old Fabio, a fan of chess thanks to Barriohabana, and who has already taken part in national tournaments.

One of the star initiatives of Barriohabana are the Friendship Games, a kind of Olympics for all the schools in Old Havana, which compete in soccer, chess, basketball, volleyball, gymnastics and marathon.

By Sara Gomez Armas.