American Family Builds Haitian Orphanage to Honor Daughter Who Died in Earthquake

Liane DupuisThree hours before Britney Gengel died in
the massive earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands in Haiti two
years ago, she sent her family a text message expressing pure affection
for the children she had met that morning while doing humanitarian work.

Pictured: In
this picture taken on Dec. 21, 2011, Liane Dupuis, a social worker and
volunteer, carries a young boy as they play at the construction site of
an orphanage in Grand Goave, Haiti.(
AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)


“They love us so much
and everyone is so happy,” she wrote. “They love what they have and they
work so hard to get nowhere, yet they are all so appreciative. I want
to move here and start an orphanage myself.”

Later
that January day, Gengel lay trapped under the wreckage of a hillside
hotel that had collapsed. Rescuers pulled at least 68 bodies, including
Gengel’s, out of the ruins.

With her last text
message in mind, Gengel’s family is now making it their mission to
carry out her dream and aid children in this devastated island nation.

Father
Leonard Gengel and his 19-year-old son Bernie are following in
Britney’s footsteps and spending the Christmas holiday here to finish
building an elaborate orphanage on the country’s western coast. The trip
is Leonard Gengel’s 20th this year.

“My wife
and I will wrap our arms around that text message for the rest of our
lives,” Gengel said from the passenger seat of a maroon Mitsubishi
taking him to the construction site. “The text message still resonates
with us.”

The center they have in mind is a
memorial of sorts, a brick-and-mortar homage to not just Britney but
also the dozens who perished at the Hotel Montana, which was known for
its sweeping vista of the capital of Port-au-Prince.

The
Haitian government estimates more than 300,000 people died in the
Western Hemisphere’s worst modern natural disaster. Britney Gengel’s
death brought home the catastrophe to her family more than 1,500 miles
(2,400 kilometers) away in Rutland, Massachusetts.

She
was a 19-year-old sophomore at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida,
when she found her calling. The communications major had come to Haiti
to hand out meals to children for Food for the Poor, a religious charity
based in Coconut Creek, a Fort Lauderdale suburb.

“She
fell in love with the children,” said Leonard Gengel, a 51-year-old
home builder. “She was consumed by what she saw and felt.”

Just
hours before the magnitude-7 earthquake hit, Britney sent the text
message to her mother, Cherylann. The last photo of Britney, taken on
the day she died, shows her surrounded by a group of pigtailed girls in
crisp, blue uniforms.

At first, school
officials told the family that Britney had gone missing. Later they said
she was on a Florida-bound helicopter. Elated and relieved, the Gengels
made their way to Fort Lauderdale to reunite with her. They learned
there that she wouldn’t be coming. School officials had received wrong
information.

“It’s unfathomable for a parent
to lose a child twice in 36 hours,” Gengel, his voice choked up, said as
the car neared Grand Goave, the coastal town Britney had planned to
visit before she died.

Gengel showed up in
Haiti 10 days later to recover his daughter’s remains, which wouldn’t be
found until Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day. She would be the last of the six
Lynn University students and professors who died to be located.

She was buried in Worcester, Massachusetts, outside the family home in Rutland.

On
Wednesday, Gengel and his son landed in Haiti, clearly still grieving
their loss. They spoke of Britney in quivering voices and wore matching
white Polo-style shirts with the name of the orphanage stitched across
their chests: Be Like Brit.

Be Like Brit, they said, means lending a hand and looking out for the underdog.

With
that in mind, the hilltop orphanage they are building, estimated to
cost $1 million, will feature solar panels and earthquake-resistant
walls, a medical clinic and an abundance of symbolic flourishes. It will
be shaped like a ‘B,’ visible to Port-au-Prince-bound airplane
passengers. Family members and sympathetic strangers have donated as
much as $800,000, Gengel said.

The
19,000-square-foot (nearly 1,800-square-meter) facility will also house
33 boys and 33 girls, for the number of days Britney’s body lay under
rubble.

It’s not clear yet where the children
will come from, but Gengel said he wants the facility to house “true”
orphans, that is, children without both parents. It’s possible the
children could be selected from the homeless settlements that sprung up
in the aftermath of the earthquake, Gengel said.

On the Gengels’ side has been an unlikely link to the National Palace. They call the first lady by her first name, Sophia.

As
it happens, Bernie is roommates with the son of Haiti’s pop
star-turned-president, Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly, at Suffolk
University in Boston, Massachusetts.

“Very
normal,” Bernie said about Sandro, a first-year student who also
performs under the stage name of Ti-Micky. “You wouldn’t know he’s the
president’s son.”

Still, there have been hurdles, and more are certain to follow.

It
took six months for the Gengels to secure a clear land title and a
deposit wasn’t made until September of last year. They bought the land
for $50,000, father Leonard Gengel said.

On Wednesday, several dozen Haitian workers hammered away amid the cinderblock base as others poured cement.

Kervince
Parayson, the site coordinator, said it was inspiring “to see someone
that comes from outside Haiti, as a (foreigner), and wants to do
something big like that for the children.”

The orphanage is due to open on the third anniversary of the quake, in 2013.

Standing
above the construction site and looking out to the ocean, Bernie Gengel
said he was pleased all the effort will help dozens of people in Haiti,
but it will come too late for one.

“I’m happy we’re doing this,” he said. “But at the same time you wish you could go back and change things and you can’t.”

Source: Trenton Daniel, The Associated Press