UC Berkeley student dies while volunteering in Haiti

Chris Zahuta/Courtesy
Christopher Zahuta, died at the age of 20 after falling from a roof in his sleep while volunteering in Leogane, Haiti.

UC Berkeley undergraduate Christopher Zahuta, known for his heart and humor, died in Haiti on July 17 after falling from a roof while sleeping three days prior. He was 20.

Zahuta had been building schools with the nonprofit organization All Hands International in Leogane, Haiti, for over a month before he fell 15 feet from the roof upon which he was sleeping.

The roof’s perimeter was bordered by a snow fence that did not break his fall. Since the accident, a solid fence has been raised around the encampment.

“The thing that’s great to me is that he never felt any pain, he never felt any fear. He was asleep, and then he woke in the hands of God — I can’t think of a better way for my baby to die,” said his mother, Christie Jeffers. “I am only sorry that he’s not here with me.”

As an organ donor, Zahuta continues to help others even after death — his heart now resides within a 55-year-old man in Virginia and his liver in a 50-year-old man in Florida.

“It’s nice to know that his heart is still beating somewhere, even now,” said Kristina Grasser, his stepbrother’s girlfriend. “I keep calling him a kid like he’s young — and he was young. The thing I’ll miss most is seeing the potential he had.”

Prior to traveling to Haiti, Zahuta decided he wanted to change lives through disaster relief work, changing his major from business and economics to sociology so he could focus more on relationships between people, Jeffers said.

“Determination and perseverance — those were some of his most paramount traits,” said Saif Umemoto, a close friend from campus.

He raised the $4,000 he needed for the trip through donations from family and friends.

“When it comes to Chris, he always tried to put other people before him,”
said former roommate Salvador Garcia. “I know while he was (in Haiti) he was ecstatic.”

From Haiti, Zahuta emailed his mother daily, updating her on events in his life from the quotidian routine of laborious construction in high heat, meal after meal of rice and beans and post-work beers  to the adventurous  escapades — contracting tapeworm, watching a bullfight and tasting Klerin, a potent moonshine liquor.

His family and friends attended a funeral service in Leogane, where a school has been dedicated to him and some of his ashes were scattered.

“He liked to have a good time here and there, but he had light in him,” Garcia said. “You could just tell there was something special about him.”

After the memorial service in Haiti, his older brother Matthew has remained in Leogane, where he will volunteer with All Hands for two months. Zahuta’s childhood friend Francisco Martinez will join him there.

“Going out to Haiti is going to help a little with the pain,” Martinez said. “The hardest part is missing his companionship, missing his answers.”