For years, translator Bilou Isaac watched Americans head home after a week of volunteering in his hometown in Haiti, usually going back to a college campus.

After bonding with many of the American students, Isaac, now 26, often wished he could go with them.

He got that chance thanks to a student group at the University of Akron — some of the same students he translated for in Haiti.

Zips for Haiti started in 2014 as a way to introduce Akron students to the country. It grew into a coffee-producing business that created a scholarship for a student from Haiti to attend UA.

Isaac became the first student to accept that scholarship, and arrived on campus this January.

"This was my dream to come," he said.

Fellow Haitian Zeke Isaac, who is from the same city as Bilou Isaac but has no known relation to him, was a UA student in 2014 trying to figure out what to do for his senior honors leadership project.

He decided to take fellow Akron students on a trip to Haiti to share his home country with them. They took 15 people, visited his high school and completed service projects over the course of a week.

"We came back and everybody just wanted to keep the momentum going," he said.

They formed Zips for Haiti to spread awareness on campus. Soon, they were searching for a way to bring in sustainable funding. Zeke Isaac and another student traveled to Haiti and brought back raw coffee.

With the help of Akron Coffee Roasters and Kevin Smith in the UA College of Business Administration, they turned it into consumable coffee and a flourishing business that raised $30,000. Akron Coffee Roasters and Compass Coffee sell their product.

"I never actually imagined that it would turn out to be so big," Zeke Isaac said.

The group has since had several student presidents and is now planning its 10th trip.

The chance to visit Haiti gave Akron native Joanna Cardarelli, who graduated from UA in the spring, a healthy dose of perspective.

"You see things on TV, but then being there in real life is very different," she said.

Cardarelli met Bilou Isaac on one of her trips to Haiti. When she last said goodbye to him in his home country, he was wearing a familiar T-shirt. "Just a Kid From Akron," it read.

"We talked about it and I was like, 'Well I hope next time I see you, it is in Akron,'" she said.

Bilou Isaac stood out as a candidate for the scholarship because of his relationship with the group already and his previous education experience in the United States. A group from Hudson had paid for him to attend Cuyahoga Community College, where he earned an associate degree, but he had to return to Haiti due to lack of funding to continue his education.

Once he received the Zips for Haiti scholarship, those credits transferred to UA, where he is now finishing a bachelor's in engineering. He wants to be an electrical engineer and to help support his mother and two brothers back in Haiti. His father died in 2006, and his sister died in the 2010 earthquake that killed 230,000 people in the country.

"I wouldn't say I was desperate, but when I got this opportunity, my hope came back," he said, adding that he feels blessed for the opportunity.

"I'm really taking it seriously," he said. "I don't take it for granted."

 

Contact Jennifer Pignolet at jpignolet@thebeaconjournal.com, at 330-996-3216 or on Twitter @JenPignolet.