BOSTON (AP) – A few hours before she was buried in the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, 19-year-old Britney Gengel texted her parents her last wish: “I want to move here and start an orphanage.”
Nearly five years later, her parents have fulfilled Britney’s wish, building a complex in the shape of a “B” that houses 33 boys and 33 girls – one of each for the exact number of days her body lay missing beneath the ruins of the hotel where she was staying.
Britney’s last text message dramatically altered her parents’ lives.
After her death, the Gengels started a nonprofit, Be Like Brit, and opened an orphanage in Grand Goave, a town about 30 miles southwest of the country’s capital, Port-au-Prince. They now split their time between Holden, Massachusetts, and Haiti; Britney’s father, Len, has made the journey to the Caribbean island 66 times.
“We look at Brit’s text as a gift to us, that three hours before the earthquake, she would send that text message and it resonated with us,” Len Gengel said in an interview from Haiti. “There’s no relief from the poverty here, and we’re doing everything we can to help the community in which we live.”
Britney was a sophomore at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, when she went to Haiti to hand out meals to children for Food for the Poor, a Florida-based religious charity.
The service trip soon turned into a nightmare for Britney and her parents. After the earthquake struck Jan. 12, school officials initially told Len and Cherylann Gengel that Britney was missing. Later, her parents were told she had been rescued and was on a Florida-bound helicopter. Feeling relieved, the Gengels immediately traveled to Fort Lauderdale to reunite with their daughter.
But once they arrived, the Gengels learned there was a terrible miscommunication. Britney was dead.
It took 33 days to recover her body from the collapsed Hotel Montana.
“The biggest challenge is that we have broken hearts,” Len Gengel said. “Everyone here has been affected by the earthquake. You don’t meet anyone who hasn’t lost a loved one. It’s helpful to be around people who understand our pain.”
The Haitian government estimates 300,000 were killed and 1.5 million left homeless after the magnitude-7.0 quake. Unstable construction throughout the island country was a major factor in the death toll.
For Len Gengel, a home builder for 30 years, constructing an orphanage that could withstand another earthquake was his first priority. He worked with an engineering firm to draw up plans for a flexible but sturdy building.
He recently installed 96 solar panels and wants to make the complex self-sustaining. The orphanage campus includes an acre of fruit trees and vegetation. Gengel’s next step is building a cistern and catch basins for water.
It costs about $75,000 a month to run the orphanage, which is paid for by donations and volunteer mission trips. There are 78 Haitians and two Americans on the orphanage staff.
People pay the orphanage a set fee of $1,750 a week and receive airfare, housing and meals. There also is a “sponsor a child” program, where people donate $33 a month to assist the orphanage with operation costs. There are currently more than 300 sponsors.
The Gengels, now retired, donate all their time and efforts to the orphanage and foundation. Cherylann runs the U.S. operations of Be Like Brit.
“As an American, I came to Haiti thinking I was going to help Haiti,” Len Gengel said. “But in actuality, Haiti has helped me.”