A Daughter's Death Inspires Parents To Build Orphanage

Britney Gengel smiles with children at an orphanage on the day of Haiti's level 7 earthquake. Via NAPW

In 2010, 316,000 people lost their lives in the level 7 earthquake that shook Haiti to its core. Among them was 19-year-old Britney Gengel, a Lynn University student who was visiting Haiti to do humanitarian work. On the morning of Jan. 12th, she texted her family, expressing joy and delight with the people she had met:

"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."

This was the last message Leonard and Cherylann Gengel, would ever receive from their daughter. Later that day, the ground shook and the hotel she was in collapsed. She and 5 other Lynn University students and professors were killed.

According to the Huffington Post, Leonard and Cherylann were told by school officials that Britney had gone missing, and later that she was on a Florida bound helicopter. "Elated and relieved," they traveled to Fort Lauderdale to reunite with their daughter. They then learned that officials had incorrect information, and that Britney would not be coming home after all.

"It's unfathomable," Leonard Gengel told Huffington Post Miami, "for a parent to lose a child twice in 36 hours."

Heart-stricken and devastated, Britney's parents and younger brother, Bernie, mourned her tragic end.  Sadness, however, was not the only way in which they would remember her. Remembering her last words to them, Leonard and Cherylann decided they would bring Britney's dream to fruition in honor of her memory and of her passion to help the people she encountered.

"She fell in love with the children," said Leonard, a home builder. "She was consumed by what she saw and felt."

The construction of Be Like Brit, a non-profit dedicated to poverty stricken children, began in December of 2011.

In the first week of Jan., 2013, construction was completed, and a moving, bitter-sweet ceremony took place as the orphanage was formally opened in the city of Grand Goave.

The official groundbreaking for the Be Like Brit Orphanage. Via belikebrit.org

Be Like Brit's first visitors take a look at the new orphanage on Friday, Jan. 4. Via telegram.com

The orphanage cost $1.8 million to build, all raised through donations. The 19,000 sq. ft. structure has seismically resistant walls, solar panels, and a medical unit. Built in the shape of a letter "B," the orphanage will house 33 girls and 33 boys, as tribute to the number of days Britney's body laid under rubble of The Montana, the hotel she was in during the earthquake.

According to the telegram.com, "the building 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."

Leonard broke down as he addressed a crowd of over 100 Haitians and Americans, remembering the first time he looked into his daughter's eyes.

“Now I know that when those children walk into this orphanage, Britney's spirit will live and I will see those beautiful eyes again,” he said, choking back tears.

Earlier that same week, Leonard and Cherylann released a bookHeartache and Hope in Haiti: The Britney Gengel Story. About 70 of those in attendance at the ceremony were given copies as they boarded planes in Boston, Newark, and Miami before their departure for Grand Goave.

Cherylann had this to say during the ceremony:

“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... Today's a day for being grateful.”

Leonard and Cherylann Gengel sing along to a choir's performance of "Oh Happy Day" as the ceremony concluded. Via telegram.com

Leonard Gengel gets a hug after the ceremony. Via telegram.com



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