Be Like Brit dedication to take place in Haiti
GRANDE GOAVE, HAITI — A chorus of young schoolchildren’s voices lilted through the tropical breeze as a large, boisterous group of Americans, many of them from Central Massachusetts, stepped across the portal today of the new Be Like Brit Orphanage.
The children chanted, in halting English, “Welcome to Be Like Brit.”
Cut into a mountain flank overlooking the ocean and the town in the valley below, the B-shaped concrete building was created to memorialize Britney Gengel, the 19-year-old college student from Rutland who was killed in the Jan. 10, 2010, earthquake that devastated this poverty-wracked island nation.
“It’s a miracle, truly a miracle,” said the Rev. Debra Pallatto-Fontaine, a United Church of Christ minister and professor of teacher education and family studies at Becker College in Worcester.
Britney’s parents, Leonard and Cherylann Gengel of Holden, founded a nonprofit group, Be Like Brit, and raised more than $2 million to build the orphanage in this coastal town about 70 miles southwest of the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, where Britney died.
Mr. Gengel, a builder of upscale homes in Central Massachusetts, supervised construction during more than 35 trips to Haiti.
Nearly three years after Britney died, the building will be dedicated Saturday in a ceremony led by two Roman Catholic priests close to the Gengels, the Rev. John Madden, pastor of St. John’s Catholic Church in Worcester and the Rev. Robert Lord of Milford, Conn.
Ms. Pallatto-Fontaine was on her second trip to Haiti. Many of the 70 or so visitors who arrived Friday evening after trips that started in the early morning in Boston, Newark and Miami, are relatives of the Gengels, including four of Mr. Gengel’s six sisters.
Others are friends from across the country who lost loved ones in the earthquake.
Friends and fellow students of Britney’s arrived, including two students who survived the earthquake and a student at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., who traveled on a “Journey of Hope,” volunteering with orphans.
Among the reasons her parents picked the site was because Britney was scheduled to visit this town’s fishing village the day after she was killed in the wreckage of Port-au-Prince’s famous Hotel Montana.
Visitors were literally wide-eyed and speechless as they took in the nearly completed building, freshly painted in pastel yellows and blues — the color scheme of the last photo of Britney with a group of orphans taken by a Lynn student who survived.
One Lynn student who survived the quake, P.J. Tyska of Willmette, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, was not close to Britney. But since the disaster, he has befriended the Gengel clan — including Britney’s brothers, Bernie, 20, and Richie, 17 — and spent many months living in Haiti and helping Mr. Gengel build the orphanage.
“I just think that from coming down here in May of 2010 when we were putting the footing in, how long I spent down here. I thought, ‘This will never be done,’” he said this evening. “Now, for me to be down here with all the people I started this with and my parents, standing on this roof, I took a minute and said, ‘We did it.’ ”
Catherine Gengel of Worcester, one of Mr. Gengel’s older sisters (Mr. Gengel, 52, is the youngest of eight siblings), exclaimed: “Unbelievable!” as she walked in the door after the 12-hour journey from Worcester. A special education teacher in Worcester schools, this is her first time in Haiti.
“I never thought I’d see it,” she said. “I’m so proud of him. My parents would be so proud of him.”
Another sister, Christine Steinwand of Boston, a counselor at Burncoat High School in Worcester, is here for the second time.
She is in charge of a committee that set up policies for the orphanage — expected to house 66 children — based on the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child.
“It’s stunning,” Ms. Steinwand said. “My brother has moved a mountain.
“We hope these kids are going to be the future leaders of Haiti and have a great ripple effect,” she added.
U.S. Rep. James P. McGovern, D-Worcester, on the trip after his swearing-in to a new term Thursday in Washington, D.C., also stood on the orphanage roof. He had a commanding view of the rippling sea, a striking mountain that towers over it, and a large island across the water.
“This is not only a beautiful tribute to Britney, but it is also making it possible for a lot of children with no families to have better lives,” the congressman said.