Parents fulfill daughter's last wish to build orphanage in Haiti

Lynn University student leaves legacy in Haiti

GRAND GOAVE, Haiti - Len Gengel is a true craftsman. The 52-year-old father of three spent his life building homes.

Now he's taking his talent to the most unlikely of places. Haiti. A country surrounded by beauty and overcome with poverty.

"This wasn't in our retirement plan, it wasn't in our playbook. Now we can't see doing anything else," says Len.

Len's life and Haiti, changed forever on January 12, 2010. More than 300,000 people lost their lives when a 7.0 earthquake ravaged the landscape. His daughter Britney was one of them .

"She lit up a room, was beautiful on the outside but more beautiful on the inside," says Len.

The 20-year-old Lynn University student was on a school trip to build homes with Food for the Poor when the earthquake hit.

In the almost three years since Britney's death, her parents, Len and Cherylann have been hard at work. The Massachusetts couple is trading despair for determination, dedicating their lives to fulfilling Britney's last wish to build an orphanage for the children of Haiti.

 
"Brit left us a great gift, that text three hours before the earthquake and we're honoring that," says Len.

From the Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince, Britney wrote that last text message to her mother: "They love us so much and everyone is so happy... I want to move here and start an orphanage myself."

The orphanage now sits on a hill overlooking the Caribbean Sea in Grand Goave, a small town Britney was supposed to visit on January 13th.

From the air, the orphanage is well defined and appropriately shaped, named "Be Like Brit".

More than 100 Haitians were hired for the job.

It's still under construction and already neighborhood kids are drawn to its warmth.
   
"It just warms your heart that these children can love so much and the people can work so hard. There's a tenacity there that's indescribable," says Len.
 
"They'll go to school, eat three meals a day... we've always said we want to give these 66 children what we've given our own children," says Cherylann.

That's not easily done. The couple raised $1 million themselves to fund the orphanage. When that wasn't enough, they sold their dream house to make this home come true.

It's hard to count how many orphans are in Haiti post-earthquake. Michelle Meece runs a nearby orphanage, she knows all the well the ongoing need.

"Last week, within a 24 hour period, we had nine children that they were trying to find a place for," says Meece.

So does the man they call Gama. He was educated at a young age, thanks to the generosity of someone he's never met. Now, he interprets for Len.
 
"The kids Britney wanted to help, I am one of them. That gave me a big push to put myself into this and do the same thing Britney wanted to do," says Gama.
 
Block by block,  the orphanage is taking shape and set to open next month. It's so precious to Len, he now lives half his life in Haiti. He spends two weeks per month in Grand Goave to make sure the project opens on time.

His fatigue is rejuvenated by the smiles he's greeted with daily. Nothing can replace their only daughter.  

"We ache daily for Britney.  I never thought I'd bury my daughter, to know she was at peace and fell in love with the children here, it brings me peace," says Cherylann.

But their passion breathes life into the last words Britney ever wrote. It brings her back to them, her message of love and hope in Haiti.

Len & Cherylann wrote a book titled "Heartache and Hope in Haiti" about their journey. All proceeds from the book sales go to fund the project in Haiti. Visit www.belikebrit.org for more information.

 

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