NAPW member Cherylann Gengel described her daughter, Britney, as a “typical teenage girl,” but there’s hardly anything “typical” about a young woman who gives up the comforts of home to travel to one of the world’s poorest countries for a two-week mission trip. But that’s exactly what Britney did in January 2010 when she set out to Haiti along with 11 fellow students and 2 professors as part of Lynn University’s “Journey of Hope” program, a trip designed to allow students to examine economic and cultural diversity by experiencing it firsthand. The students were scheduled to provide activities for orphans, handicapped children and adults, and the elderly, and to paint houses.
It was Britney’s passion and deep sense of caring for those less fortunate than herself that led her to enroll in the program. The day after the group arrived in Haiti, Tuesday, January 12, 2010, the country was ravaged by a catastrophic 7.0 magnitude earthquake.
Britney, age 19, along with three classmates and two professors perished in the earthquake, which destroyed the country’s capital, Port-au-Prince, and killed an estimated 316,000 people.
Britney at the orphanage on the day of the earthquake
On that fateful day, the Gengel family—Cherylann, her husband, Len, and their two sons, Bernie, 20, and Richie, 16—was changed forever.
Britney had spent the day of the earthquake visiting an orphanage where she and fellow students met the small Haitian orphans they had traveled so far to help. Cherylann recalled that Britney “fell in love with the people of Haiti—but especially the children. She loved their spirit but was devastated by what she saw: children without clothes, children without a meal, children who didn’t have their own bed.”
The last text message Cherylann received from Britney only hours before the deadly earthquake read:
“They love us so much and everyone is so happy. 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.”
Having experienced a parent’s worst nightmare, Cherylann and Len could easily have crumbled. The question, “Why our daughter?” was certainly not left unasked. Ultimately, they credited their strong faith and knowledge of Britney’s last wish, to help the children of Haiti by building an orphanage, for giving them a sense of purpose in the midst of such unimaginable tragedy.
In February 2010, the Gengels founded the Be Like Brit foundation (a.k.a. Britney Gengel’s Poorest of the Poor Fund Inc.) to raise funds to build an orphanage in Haiti in honor of Britney’s last wish. Cherylann is the co-founder and treasurer of the non-profit organization.
While Cherylann runs Be Like Brit from its Massachusetts headquarters, Len, co-founder and president of the organization, travels to Grand Goave, Haiti, on a biweekly basis to oversee construction, which began in January 2011. The orphanage is on track to be completed by the end of this year!
Plans for the orphanage
Progress as of April 11, 2012
The building is in the shape of the letter “B” and will house 33 girls and 33 boys—representing the 33 days that Britney was missing in the rubble at The Hotel Montana. The orphanage will include a five-room medical clinic, a lifeline in a country with no reliable healthcare for its poorest citizens.
The young orphans will receive love, healthcare and an education at the orphanage. Be Like Brit has already received scholarship offers from colleges and universities that will allow the girls and boys that will soon call the orphanage home to further their educations.
Cherylann says they aren’t trying to change Haiti with the orphanage; their main goal is to provide basic life necessities for helpless children who otherwise would have to go without. One thing Britney noticed, and told Cherylann during her visit, was that the orphans were so happy—even though they had so little.
The Gengels also hope to see a positive ripple effect in a country that struggled enormously even before the devastating disaster. They have employed 50-75 Haitian workers for the construction, which has already created a ripple effect of its own, with local women setting up cooking shops around the site to sell food to the workers. And this is only the beginning. The Gengels realize that an education is the only hope that the orphans will be able to help another person.
Be Like Brit holds various fundraising events, mostly in the Massachusetts area
Be Like Brit also hosts a mission trip program, called Britsionary
Britney’s Family: (from left) Richie, Cherylann, Len, and Bernie
To learn more about Be Like Brit, or if you are interested in supporting the organization, visit: BeLikeBrit.org.