A week ago Monday was the first time in 4 days that I did not wake up to the sound of roosters crowing and the smell of coal burning in the air. These sounds and smells that emanated from the small homes made of concrete cinder blocks and others with pieces of scrap wood and tin roofs surround the Be Like Brit orphanage in Grand Goave, Haiti, signaled that it was the beginning of a new day as people cooked their morning meal over a coal flame.
I was honored to be part of a 12 member group led by Country Bank’s Paul Scully and Cherylann Gengel that had a chance visit the orphanage and meet and interact daily with 66 beautiful children who are part of the Be Like Brit Home and Gengel family. Our group also spent several days working with a group of local tradesmen in building the 108th home for a family in the neighborhood where the BLB Home is located. Many of these tradesmen were trained by Len Gengel.
This trip brought back numerous memories of my interactions with the Gengel family over the years. As a City Councilor and Mayor, I had gotten to know Len Gengel through my City Council colleague Mike Perotto. Additionally, my mother-in-law was a childhood friend of Len’s sister Kathy dating back to the old St. John’s grammar school. Moreover, as Mayor and Lt. Governor I had visited their family restaurant in Rutland, the Grand Slam Cafe on several occasions.
They were good people who were very involved in Central Massachusetts in a variety of different ways. Both Len and Cherylann had deep roots in Worcester and Rutland. Additionally, Len’s passion and advocacy for the residential construction industry was legendary among area elected officials.
As a result, it was jarring to me and so many others who knew the Gengel’s to learn that their daughter Britney was among the missing when an earthquake, measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale, hit the island country of Haiti on January 12, 2010. Britney was in Haiti on a service mission with her school, Lynn University. This earthquake would ultimately claim the lives of nearly 300,000 people. Brutally, the Gengel’s were mistakenly informed that Britney was found alive among the rubble at the Hotel Montana only to be told shortly thereafter that she had not yet been found and was still among the missing. Thirty-three days later, Britney’s body would be recovered and returned home to Massachusetts.
In particular, I recall as Lt. Governor attending a prayer vigil for Britney at St. Patrick’s Church in Rutland with Congressman Jim McGovern during those early days after the earthquake. My oldest daughter was 5 years old and I brought her to the vigil. I am not sure I have ever held her tighter than that night as the priest, friends and family of Britney Gengel offered prayers and words with the hope that Britney would be found alive. Sadly, that would not be the case. However, Britney’s last words in a text to her parents about wanting to build an orphanage in Haiti would be the call to action in which her parents and brothers would honor her life and the manner in which she lived it.
Our group arrived at the airport at Port of Prince Airport in Haiti on a very hot and muggy afternoon. We quickly loaded the two vans with our luggage and supplies for the orphanage and got on our way to Grand Goave. As we drove, the crushing poverty and the complete lack of basic governmental services was evident. Mounds of trash seemed to be everywhere and a lack of access to clean water had people using small river beds or pools of rainwater to bathe or wash clothes.
However, what was also readily apparent amidst this failure of government was the manner in which the people of Haiti carried themselves. Despite their surroundings, there was a humble dignity and industriousness in the way the people walked and worked. The kids in spotless school uniforms, men in ties or women in dresses coming to or from work, waiting for the “tap-tap” makeshift taxi buses to take them home or to work. Or perhaps it was the orderly manner in which merchants displayed their goods or foods that they were attempting to sell in the open-air markets that seemed everywhere along Port of Prince’s busy roads. People were trying to make the best of things, to find a way forward.
We arrived at the Be Like Brit Home atop a large hill with a sweeping view of not just the Village of Grand Goave but much of Haiti. As we entered the Home we were greeted by the children with several welcoming songs including Leonard Cohen’s – Hallelujah, which was incredibly moving. This was just the beginning of what would be a very meaningful and informative 5 days for all of us who were the visiting “Britsionaries”. “Britsionary” was a Be Like Brit modification of the word missionary for those who would visit and assist in the mission and work of the Be Like Brit organization.
During my trip, several themes emerged based upon my experiences and observations. First, it reinforced what special people that Cherylann, Len and their sons are for leading this effort over the past 8 years. The 66 children who reside at the Home have the highest level of care and educational opportunity. More importantly, these children know they are in an environment where they are loved by adults who seek to bring out the best in each child. Secondly, the Gengel’s have not only transformed the lives of these 66 children in their daughter’s honor, but also for the dozens of families who work at the Be Like Brit Home as well. Whether it is the teachers, child care workers, kitchen staff, laundry, grounds and maintenance crews or the security team, all of these employees and their families have a weekly paycheck that they can count on to provide for themselves and their families. This is a big deal in a country with an unemployment rate that is estimated to be over 60% because of a lack of jobs. Thirdly, the Be Like Brit organization’s goal to build safe housing for the community has resulted in 108 new homes being constructed for residents of Grand Goave This effort is a house by house effort to build safer housing for the residents of Grand Goave. This is in response to one of the lessons learned from the tragic earthquake where unsafe housing conditions contributed significantly to the death toll. Additionally, the Be Like Brit Home provides clean water daily to the neighbors from their own well and filtration system.
Lastly, as I saw the children wearing St. John’s and Holy Name High School shirts, Sacred Heart basketball league jerseys with the local sponsor logos, or dressed up in suits and dresses for Sunday morning church services, I thought about the many ways that individuals, multiple businesses and organizations from Central Massachusetts have contributed to the construction and ongoing support of the Be Like Brit Home and mission.
I wondered if the people who have assisted the Gengel’s in this journey, in any way, both large or small, truly understand what a tremendous impact they are having on these children and the Village of Grand Goave. The donated buses and vans from the Eagle Hill School and the Bancroft School that transport the kids to school each day. The clothes that people donate so 66 growing kids can be properly clothed. The food that is donated so the children can eat three nutritious meals each day. The individuals, schools and churches that send money or sponsor a child at the Home have all helped create something that is incredibly special. A special mission that has been such a positive force for good that goes well beyond the gates of the Be Like Brit Home.
It is said, that “if you want to change the world think globally, but act locally.” The magical thing about supporting the Be Like Brit Mission is that people are tangibly helping implement the positive change that Britney and the Gengel’s envisioned and assisting them in empowering the 66 children, staff and Village of Grand Goave, Haiti. To learn more or how you can help further the Be Like Brit organization and its mission go BeLikeBrit.org