Gengel
Britney Gengel with youngsters in Haiti on Jan. 11, 2010, the day before she perished in the earthquake. Courtesy of the Gengels

Britney Gengel was 19 and a sophomore at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., when she considered changing her major from communications to a focus on social services. 

“She was debating what to do, and we supported her decision to go to Haiti,” her mother Cherylann Gengel told Our Sunday Visitor. “She was just figuring out life, and we thought that when she came home, she would know what she wanted to do. We never realized the impact that this would have.” 

Britney arrived in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, on Jan. 11, 2010. The next day, she texted her mother that she wanted to move there and start an orphanage. They spoke on the phone three hours later. Then 45 minutes later, at 4:53 p.m., a magnitude-7.0 earthquake struck Haiti, killing more than 250,000 people. Britney was one of them. 

Cherylann and Len Gengel of Worcester, Mass., made a commitment to “finish Brit’s journey” by founding Be Like Brit, a nonprofit that is building the orphanage their daughter wanted. Ground was broken on Jan. 9, almost a year from the date of her death. The first concrete was poured at the foundation excavation in May, and blocks, rebar and structural columns were up by the end of last month. 

“The response for the funding and the outpouring of love have been overwhelming,” Gengel said. “People are praying for us, sending us letters, and sending everything from $5 to $25,000. People from all over the world want to see her wish come true.” 

Hope turns to heartache

Britney took her Catholic faith seriously and was known as a caring person. 

“She was a very kind soul in a quiet way,” Gengel said. “She cared about kids, and she always cared about people’s dignity. When people needed help, she just jumped in and did it.” 

Britney signed up for a three-week mission trip with classmates and faculty during semester break. They stayed in the Hotel Montana, which was leveled, and no one knew who survived. Word came that Britney had been rescued. 

“We were ecstatic,” Gengel said. Yet the couple didn’t feel quite right. They were uneasy when they boarded the plane for Florida, and they found the university campus “quiet and dismal.” Then they learned that there had been a mistake — Britney had not been rescued.

God-given strength

They stayed in Florida, waiting and praying for nine days that included what would have been Britney’s 20th birthday. Len Gengel soon flew to Haiti while his wife stayed in Massachusetts with their sons, Bernie, now 19, and Richie, now 16. 

“When Len came home, we knew that Britney wasn’t going to come home alive,” Gengel said. “We picked out a cemetery lot and a headstone. Then we got the news on Valentine’s Day that she had been recovered. We are so grateful that we got her back.” 

Another student’s camera was recovered, and her family shared 296 photos with the Gengels. In picture after picture, Britney is smiling broadly with the children. 

“Does my heart ache? Do I miss my daughter? Absolutely,” Gengel said. “But I am not angry and I hope that I don’t ever get that way. I count on my faith, and I need my faith more than ever before. God has given me strength to get up every morning, and I am so grateful that I have God in my life.” 

Gengel was in Haiti in November, and her husband remained for his 18th trip to the island country. He is a builder and received material and financial support from colleagues and strangers. Architectural and some other services were pro bono because so many people believe in Britney’s dream. 

The two-story orphanage is designed in the shape of a “B,” and will house 33 girls and 33 boys, symbolic of the 33 days that Britney was missing.  

“Our goal is to make sure that the kids have three meals a day, that they have an education and that they are loved and taken care of,” Gengel said. 

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania. Visit belikebrit.org for information.