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‘Lead, Kindly Light’: Student discovers bright future in Haiti

2018-05-23 00:00:00.0

The ancient Greek philosopher Plato famously likened the acquisition of wisdom to emerging from a dark cave into the light of the sun.

Zachary Fulmer, a marketing major at The University of Akron, lived in his own kind of darkness, a cavernous solitude, for most of his adolescence.

“I had a very bad experience at school,” he says. “I was bullied. I never really had friends.”

Yet there burned within him a flame of compassion for those who, like him, suffered in isolation – especially children, those flickering candles in a cold, windy world.

So Fulmer pursued a degree in education (which comes from a Latin word meaning “to lead out”), following its path until he reached a dead end, realizing that the mouth of the cave in which he found himself lay elsewhere.

“Something just didn’t sit right,” says Fulmer, remembering how another path presented itself, leading he knew not where.  

“I’ve always believed that God puts a path in front of you,” says Fulmer, reflecting on the crucial moment when, on what seemed like a whim, he – who had never been out of the country – signed up for a mission trip to Haiti. “You just have to choose whether to walk that path.”


Zachary Fulmer with students

Zachary Fulmer enjoys a conversation with some of the students to whom he taught English in Haiti.


The weeklong trip, sponsored by the College of Business Administration’s Institute for Leadership Advancement, would take him and eight other UA students to Ouanaminthe, Haiti, to perform services such as teaching English at Institution Univers, a nonprofit-supported school for students from pre-K through grade 13.

“I’d never done anything that spontaneous before,” Fulmer says. “Who just goes to Haiti? I’ve never been anywhere! What pushed me to want to go to Haiti? I don’t think it was me.”

When Fulmer stepped out of the plane and into the Haitian sun, he, who all his life had been restless and alienated, felt strangely at home. His eyes adjusting to the light, he looked for the next path to take.

Glimmers of hope

Over the next few days, Fulmer saw that he and his peers, merely by their presence, brought glimmers of hope to their students, who viewed learning as the lamp that would lead them out of the shadow of poverty. 

One night he saw, under a streetlamp, a little girl, alone, turning the pages of a textbook.

Zachary Fulmer

Zachary Fulmer in Haiti last December.

“There was this girl in the street, under a streetlight, studying, at 9 or 10 o’clock at night,” Fulmer says. “It was a really big discovery moment when I saw that her livelihood depends on how well she does on this test, and if she goes to college. It was this light bulb that went off.” 

In the searching light of the streetlamp, he felt exposed and ashamed.

“I don’t dedicate myself like that,” he says. “People in Haiti would do anything, anything to have the type of advantages that we do. I grew up with a lot of things. I’m very privileged. I’ve never liked school, but in Haiti, school is a privilege.”

Education valued

Fulmer adds that the Haitian students, who were on winter vacation, were not required to attend the English camp which he and his peers ran. Yet they came anyway, ambitious to go to the U.S. someday to become doctors, scientists and lawyers. Fulmer asked if that was because they wanted to escape Haiti, and if they would ever come back.

A girl looked at him, quizzically, and said, “Why wouldn’t I come back? This is my home!”

“They are so happy to be there, and so thankful for all of the things they have,” Fulmer says, pointing out that their greatest possessions are relational rather than material.

“They find joy in being with people,” he adds. “When you’re there, you see that they’re just talking and laughing, and everything is so happy, for some reason. They don’t wish for things. They don’t wish they had more money. It’s really eye-opening to see that.”

Still, it pained Fulmer that he could not, in a week’s time, relieve their material burdens.

“You meet these people and you love them, you care for them and you want the best for them,” Fulmer says. “Even though you can’t bring them the best, you can bring them yourself.”

Then, it dawned on him: an epiphany, he says, wherein he saw, with brilliant clarity – like one who had emerged from a dark cave – the purpose of his life.

“This trip made me realize that what I’m meant to do in life is help people,” Fulmer says. “For the first time ever, I really found some sort of clarity, some sort of meaning. It was the most clear it’s ever been. I was lying under the stars, and I realized that I’ve always really lived for myself, but now I realize that not only do I have to live for myself, I have to live for others, live to help others, and with the help of God. I’ve never been so sure of something.”

Fulmer returned home on Christmas Eve, having requested that, as one of his gifts, his parents make charitable donations to the children of Haiti.

As soon as he could, he signed up for the next trip, in May 2018.

“I think I’m going to be going to Haiti for the rest of my life,” he says, adding that he has a trunk full of school supplies, shoes and clothes for the students – courtesy of family and friends – ready to take with him.

Plato wrote that the one who has escaped from the cave is transformed, and cannot help but see the world, others and oneself, in a radically different light. 

Giving opportunities to others

“I’ve absolutely become a better person because of Haiti,” Fulmer says. “I’ve found myself giving a lot more. Everything we have here is an absolute privilege. Because I’ve grown up with so much, I want others to have the same opportunities as me. I’ve found myself not really asking for much. I really just found contentment for what I have, thanking God for the little things.”

Fulmer, after years of bitter isolation, now enjoys the warmth of new friendships.

“I now have 10, 12, 14 friends, and that is so incredible to me, because I grew up not really relating to others,” he says.

Fulmer, who even adds that he would like to adopt a Haitian child someday, is now studying business and hopes to work, in some capacity, to improve the lives of Haitians after graduating in 2019.

“I have this thing inside me that says something about these people in Haiti is special, and you have to do something that involves these people,” he adds. “I find happiness there. God put me in Haiti for a reason. I believe wholeheartedly that I’m supposed to be there any time that I can.”

This is the path, Fulmer concludes, that has been put before him. He has no choice but to walk it.