Friday, May 29

Alum’s Haiti volunteer experience during school unlocks lifetime career

UCLA alum Elisha Chan, who has visited Haiti 20 times in the past seven years, started a business that aims to bring local Haitian artisans to a more global market. (Courtesy of Elisha Chan)

The original version of this article contained multiple errors. It incorrectly referred Elisha C as a nonprofit. Elisha Chan did not launch an initiative that provides prenatal care. The translation of "for their mothers" was incorrect.

At eight years old, Elisha Chan left her family and a familiar society behind in Hong Kong to pursue an education in the United States. She struggled to learn a new language in a country where she knew no one, but persevered because education was a priority for her family.

Ten years later, Chan was accepted to UCLA, where she joined the Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship. In 2009, she travelled with the organization to an orphanage in Fond Doux, Haiti, called Theo’s Place.

On her seventh trip to Haiti, Chan realized Chi Alpha’s contributions would not have a lasting impact without continuous donations. In 2013, she founded Elisha C., a business that aims to bring local Haitian artisans to a more global market – so they can directly contribute to Haiti’s economy.

Chan has visited Haiti more than 20 times in the last seven years. She now works with sponsors to develop community businesses such as a bakery and a motorcycle taxi company.

This year, the business also provided 40 scholarships to children and young adults – to allow them an opportunity to pursue higher education, as Chan’s family wanted for her.

Chan said she thinks Haitians make financial decisions based on short-term needs because they are often too worried about their next meal to even think about paying for school. Through providing scholarships, she hopes to change their mentality so they can experience the long-term security that comes from obtaining an education, she added.

Daniel Sainnatus, a scholarship recipient, said he felt extremely relieved when Chan called his name at the first annual college scholarship ceremony last year. Sainnatus said the scholarship lifted a huge financial burden from his family, and he would not have been able to attend school without it.

Sainnatus, a first-year architecture student at the Université INUKA, now works as a translator for Happy Kids International – a Christian charity group in Haiti that provides nutritional, educational and spiritual services. He added he felt self-conscious in the past about his ability to translate from English to Creole and back, but volunteers from Chi Alpha encouraged him to continue. He has since translated more than 100 live events.

In the future, Chan hopes to expand the scholarship so anyone in Haiti can apply. She also plans to launch a community loan system that allows new businesses to borrow money until they are profitable. When they pay back the loan, it will be lent out to another new business.

Na’keenya Jackson, a third-year political science student who travelled to Haiti with Chi Alpha, said she remembers staying up late every night to maximize her time with the Haitian children.

“Whenever we go there, no matter how long we stay, I always feel like I need more time,” Jackson said.

Jackson said the Haitian children were often left alone during the day, while their parents searched for ways to provide for their families. Young children often took care of even younger siblings instead of enjoying leisure time.

“No one cares to play games, because there is always something more important to worry about,” Jackson said.

Jackson said simple activities like card games helped them connect and form friendships with the children, despite communication barriers.

Lillian Pham, an Elisha C. employee and UCLA alumna, said she remembers a Christmas event during which Chi Alpha and Elisha C. volunteers served dinner and gave presents to 50 guests.

At the dinner, some of the younger children wrapped extra food in napkins. When Pham approached them, they explained it was “pou mama mwen,” or for their mothers. Pham said the children continued to think of family members who weren’t able to attend the celebration.

Two months after returning home, Jackson said she stumbled across a phone recording from a group of Haitian children she met. She pressed play, and their voices reassured her they loved her.

Chan said volunteering in Haiti allowed her to unlock what turned into a lifetime career. She added that some college students prioritize other things such as grades, but she thinks volunteering is an invaluable opportunity everyone should experience.

“No one asks about your GPA after college,” Chan said. “Those are crucial years when you get to experience things, and be touched and motivated in ways you otherwise wouldn’t be.”

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