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American Family Build Orphanage In Honor of 19 Year Old Daughter Who Died During Earthquake

Haiti Earthquake Orphanage

An American family who lost their daughter in a massive earthquake in Haiti three years ago has finished building an orphanage in her memory. The parents of Britney Gengel, Leonard and Cherylann, led about 150 family and friends, including U.S. Rep. James P. McGovern, D-Worcester, in a solemn ceremony Saturday at the Be Like Brit orphanage in the coastal town of Grand Goave.

Saturday, at the morning dedication of the Be Like Brit Orphanage on a Haitian mountainside, Mr. Gengel broke down as he spoke to a Haitian and American crowd of more than 100 of seeing Britney’s eyes for the first time on the day of her birth.“Now I know that when those children walk into this orphanage, Britney’s spirit will live and I will see those beautiful eyes again,” Mr. Gengel, 52, said as he choked back a sob.

The hourlong ecumenical ceremony ended with a collective singing of the spiritual “Oh Happy Day,” led by a choir of Haitian teenagers, with Mr. Gengel and his wife, Cherylann, singing and swaying along with the visitors. Meanwhile, five pastors, including two Roman Catholic priests from the U.S., a minister and professor from Becker College in Worcester, and a Haitian evangelical preacher and a Haitian Catholic priest, stood hand in hand before a wooden cross as the audience members all held hands. There was a sense of bittersweet sadness — a recognition of the destructive power of tragedy coupled with the capacity to overcome grief with hope that the Gengels have demonstrated, many who have helped them in their venture have observed. With Mr. Gengel’s Haitian construction supervisor, Kervince “Gama” Parayson, a former Athol resident, translating in the local Creole language, Mrs. Gengel remarked on this contradiction.

“It’s a day of mixed emotions. It’s a day of crying. I’m so proud of my husband and all he has accomplished,” she said of Mr. Gengel, an accomplished builder of many upscale homes in Central Massachusetts over the last two decades. “Today’s a day for being grateful.” The orphanage’s formal opening in this coastal town about 70 miles southwest of the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, came nearly three years after Britney died in the wreckage of the Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12, 2010. The Gengels’ nonprofit, Be Like Brit, has raised about $2 million for construction. The couple’s book, “Heartache and Hope in Haiti: the Britney Gengel Story,” was released this week, and a members group of about 70 Americans — including many Gengel family relatives, were handed copies as they boarded planes in Boston, Newark and Miami Friday for flights here.

The entire group slept in bunk beds — two to six to a room — in the 11 children’s rooms in the orphanage. The building has more than 35 rooms altogether, including common areas, an apartment, kitchen, playrooms, and meeting spaces and dorms for visiting volunteers, academics, medical personnel and others. The orphanage is equipped with a nanotechnology water filtering system, about 80 room fans and a modern septic system — all rarities in Haiti. The orphanage also distributes free, clean water daily to neighbors in the hillside community of Icondo, named after the mountain on which the building stands surrounded by 15-foot security walls topped with shards of embedded glass.

Britney was in Haiti with a group from Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla. Three other Lynn students and two faculty members died that day. Two students who survived the quake at the iconic hotel, where Bill and Hillary Clinton honeymooned, are with the group of Americans who are visiting the orphanage.Saturday afternoon, Mr. Gengel led visitors to this town’s fishing village, where Britney was scheduled to go with the Florida-based nonprofit aid group, Food for the Poor, the day after her death. Joshua Steinwand, 38, a nephew of Mr. Gengel and Worcester native who lives in Boston, said after returning from the foray to the fishing village that Britney’s trip to Haiti and experience volunteering with orphans here was as much a part of her personality as being a fun-loving 19-year-old.. – Continue Reading Here

Parents Cherylann and Len Gengel, second and third from the left, at the dedication of the orphanage on Jan. 5 (Courtesy)
The newly constructed Be Like Brit orphanage in Grand Goave, Haiti, in the shape of a "B" (Courtesy Be Like Brit)
The new Be Like Brit orphanage in Grand Goave, Haiti, in the shape of a “B” (Courtesy Be Like Brit)
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