Family builds Haiti orphanage to honor daughter

AP News
Posted: Dec 23, 2011 1:31 PM
Family builds Haiti orphanage to honor daughter

Three 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.

"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."