HUNTINGTON - The Nice List, a Huntington-based charity providing Christmas wishes to those in need, is partnering with Zac's Zoo, a nationally recognized charity with local ties.
Zac's Zoo honors the memory of Zac Cohen, a former student at Marshall University and member of the Sigma Tau Gamma fraternity who died in a motorcycle accident last September. The purpose of Zac's Zoo is to provide stuffed animals to police, fire departments and other first responders, so they may give the animals to children in need of comfort.
Isaac Morgan, founder of The Nice List as well as Marshall's chapter of Sigma Tau Gamma, is in the process of setting up donation stations in the community to support Zac's Zoo, and current members of the fraternity are doing the same on Marshall's campus. The Planet Fitness in Barboursville is the first established drop-off location, which started accepting donations Monday. Morgan said accepted donations for Zac's Zoo are new stuffed animals with the tags attached.
Kyle Chapman, a member of Sigma Tau Gamma, said the fraternity chose Zac's Zoo as its local philanthropy.
"We've been in need of a local philanthropy, but we wanted it to be personal to us and it really just doesn't get more personal than this opportunity," Chapman said. "And being in the Greek community, we have a lot of access to the other leaders on campus. I don't know the full scale of where we'll end up, but eventually at local businesses we'd like to have bins set up. Just spread out the net as wide as we can to get as many donations as possible."
Morgan said Ellen Cohen, Zac's mother, was partially inspired by The Nice List when creating Zac's Zoo, but Zac's contributions to Hurricane Katrina victims also inspired her.
"During Hurricane Katrina, in his area of Illinois, a lot of displaced kids were put there," Morgan said. "He went around and gathered thousands of stuffed animals to donate to Hurricane Katrina victims. She, in his memory, created Zac's Zoo."
Zac and his mother had made contributions to The Nice List, including after severe flooding in parts of the state in 2016, and Morgan said he knew he wanted to help honor Zac's memory and selflessness.
"It always meant a lot to me that in that short amount of time, they became so invested," Morgan said. "When I found out that Zac had died, I took it hard just as all the other brothers did. And I immediately contacted Ellen and said: 'Look, I started this as a way to mourn over my uncles. Do I have your permission to have a stuffed animal at my booth and call it Zac, just say Zac's with me?' She said, 'Absolutely; he loved dogs.' She picked out the dog, got a little Santa hat for it, and Zac goes around with me at all my stuff."
Morgan said when Ellen Cohen told him Zac's Zoo was going national last year, she wanted a local connection to the charity in Huntington.
"Last year I was able to get a big donation from Build A Bear, where we gave every kid in the Hoops Hospital a brand new build a bear toy," Morgan said. "There was plenty left over, so I mailed 35 or 40 bears up to her, and she immediately called and said: 'Listen, Zac's Zoo is going national. We want to start in Zac's second home, a place that he loved. So would The Nice List be interested in helping?' And that's how it started."
Dylan Vogel, member of Sigma Tau Gamma, said the fraternity is working to set up donation bins on Marshall's campus in the Student Center and Rec Center, as well as to partner with local businesses to participate in donations. Vogel said he knew Zac personally, and it's important to him to help out, just as Zac helped anyone he could.
"I came in with Zac in my rush class, and Zac was in for about a year, but the entire time that Zac was in, he focused very much on just giving," Vogel said. "He was a very philanthropic person in general. Pretty much anytime that I saw Zac he just smiled; he was always very personable. He was very much about, if I can help out, I want to help out. And that's a major driving cause to a lot of us is to help at a level where like it's very important as a young individual to get help and know that people care."
Those interested in donating to Zac's Zoo may drop off donations to Planet Fitness in Barboursville, or they may message The Nice List WV, Zac's Zoo or Marshall's Sigma Tau Gamma on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. When new drop off locations have been established at Marshall and other locations throughout West Virginia, announcements will be made on social media.
"If anybody wants to donate, but can't get the stuffed animals, if they want to make a donation to The Nice List and specifically say it's for Zac's Zoo, I'll gladly take the funds and purchase the animals myself," Morgan said. "Like Ellen told me, it's important for her to start in an area that she knows Zac loved and that loved Zac in return. So we're going to show what the state of West Virginia can do."
"Zac really wasn't in a situation where he ever needed to want something, but he understood that others may not be in that situation. So he used what he was given to help others. That was one of the things that I'll always remember about Zac is just any extra he had, he tried to make sure everybody had something," Morgan said.