Thousands of miles from home, Detroit natives Jennifer Cooper, 34, and Jared Acker, 35, are waiting to welcome Metro Detroiters and beyond to a sustainable tourism experience of their own making.
Originally from Birmingham and West Bloomfield, respectively, they’ve built a lodge overlooking the beach in El Tránsito, Nicaragua, aimed at helping guests engage with the community through education, ecology and the arts. It’s a way for visitors to help better the El Tránsito community as well as themselves, Acker says. Volunteer projects can be tailored to include teaching English, sea turtle conservation, building homes, art projects, cooking, beach cleanup and reforestation, he adds.
Married for four years and together for 10, Cooper and Acker, who met through a mutual friend while living in Chicago post-undergrad, share a love for travel and culture that has taken them around the world. The pair spent a year and a half together in Chicago and then went to South Korea in 2008 — after only dating a year — to teach English. They traveled through Southeast Asia separately before returning to the U.S.
After meeting back up in Detroit in September 2009, they headed to Central America for a few months. That trip, which included Nicaragua, turned out to be more than just an excursion.
“I think since we left Central America, we had been planning and devising this business idea of combining both of our strengths, so the arts and project-based learning and then language and social justice, which is Jared’s background,” Cooper says. “So it evolved into this retreat center where we provide authentic experiences for groups of travelers.”
They landed back in Detroit and moved to Denver in February 2010, where Cooper taught high school sculpture at an art magnet school in southwest Denver. Acker, meanwhile, taught ESL to kindergarteners, first- and second-graders in southeast Denver.
But they kept an eye on real estate in Nicaragua, making contact with a real estate agent who, over the course of six years, helped them look for properties. “We wanted to be in Nicaragua in our minds,” she says.
They returned to Nicaragua in July 2015 for a scouting trip with Acker’s brother Evan and two friends, staying at a beach house by night and seeing different beaches and towns during the day.
They first stumbled upon El Tránsito, a small fishing village, while seeking cover during a rainstorm. “We fell in love with the place immediately,” Acker says. They came back to the United States and mapped out the project in their living room.
Acker and Cooper closed on their property, an acre of land a 15-minute walk from town on a hill that slopes down to the ocean, in April 2016. They broke ground in November 2016 on Craft for Community, a project-based learning space, retreat center and language school, and completed work a year later. And there’s a lot for guests to learn, including Spanish, which they can practice and have fun with in a practical setting, he says.
The 3,200-square-foot, six-bedroom lodge can accommodate up to 24 people. It has a lounge area that overlooks the ocean, a kitchen and living space that also opens to the ocean, Acker says. Craft for Community had a soft launch in November and started hosting groups in December 2017.
The project was self-funded, and they’ve now started a GoFundMe crowdfunding page to help finance the addition of an outdoor learning center.
Today, they partner with two area nonprofits to help find, house and support volunteers at their center. The program was built as a social enterprise, Acker adds, so a percentage of fees from programs guests choose to participate in are donated to the local nonprofits.
“People always ask us, ‘Why El Tránsito?’” Cooper says. “We just had this feeling — when we walked on the beach there, we saw all the fishermen walking with their catch there. We just had this magical moment of knowing this was our community.”
The pair, who live in the village with their 1-year-old son, James, are getting ready to welcome visitors from Michigan — February and March at their lodge are almost completely booked already, with Temple Israel slated to bring a group of high school students in April. “We really want to work with groups to make the experience meaningful for them, and the way we do that is by crafting an itinerary that meets both the needs of the group and the needs of the community,” Acker says.
“We wanted to live in a beautiful place, for our son to grow up speaking both languages and have a cultural experience,” he adds. At the same time, they wanted to do something more than just run a hotel on the beach.
“We knew we had to be mentshes in that way, and we wanted to give back to the community and create meaningful experiences for people to change the way they think and be cognizant about being better people. We know that our program can really offer travelers that experience, to better themselves and also better a community while also on vacation.”
Growing up with a Jewish background also taught them about connecting with others. Acker spent nine years at Hillel Day School, where his mother was a teacher, and grew up at Adat Shalom Synagogue, both in Farmington Hills. Cooper’s grandparents on her father’s side are Holocaust survivors.
“We are very culturally Jewish — we do seders and fast on Yom Kippur,” he says. “But what a lot of that has really taught us is to build empathy for your fellow human being, and we think this project goes a long way in terms of trying to build that empathy between cultures.”
Dr. Michael Treblin, who lives in West Bloomfield and who, with his family, spent years living across the street from the Ackers, says he’s been amazed to see the couple’s project unfold. “I watched him grow up, and now he’s carving a place out of the jungle and making a magnificent project, he and his wife,” Treblin says. “It’s something to behold.”
He says he’s not surprised that Acker, who has always had an adventurous and compassionate spirit, and Cooper have undertaken such an endeavor. “They came up with what sounds like a winner of an idea,” he says. “And we’ll keep our fingers crossed. Hopefully, it’ll catch on because it sounds great.”
Karen Schwartz Contributing Writer