How a 10-year-old wish changed Haiti

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Patrick Mead keeps a photo of a Haitian woman named Madame Selavie on his phone.

In it, she stands next to a home that Patrick helped build for her in Grand Goave, Haiti.

The two met when Mead was on a service-immersion trip during his senior year at St. John’s High School in Shrewsbury.

Before Patrick arrived, the woman lived in a shack made of scrap metal and tarp. She and her four children slept on a dirt floor where floodwater from the mountainside poured in through their roof.

When Mead, now a 20-year-old student at the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine, visited the family’s new home a year later, he didn’t recognize her at first.

“When I met her on that first trip, she didn’t smile once,” Patrick said.

“But, that second time, she smiled because she recognized me. She just looked physically younger. She felt loved.”

Mead calls that moment the best of his life.

Today, Mead is among 1,800 people who have built 148 homes in Grand Goave through Worcester’s Be-Like-Brit Britsionary Program. They stay in a guesthouse located next to Brit’s Home, which cares for 66 Haitian children. Together, the children’s home and the house-building program keep alive the last wish Britney Gengel sent to her mother — 10 years after her death.

That wish, or rather a three-sentence text message, greets those who walk inside Be-Like-Brit’s Operation Center in Worcester. It decorates the walls inside Brit’s Home too.

“They love us so much and everyone is so happy,” the text reads in bright blue words.

“They love what they have and they work so hard to get nowhere, yet they are all so appreciative. I want to move here and start an orphanage myself.”

Gengel, a 19-year-old Rutland native who studied at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., sent her mother, Cherylann Gengel, the message a few days before the magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Jan. 12, 2010. A few days into her humanitarian trip with Food for the Poor, she had fallen in love with the people of Haiti.

The State Department spent 33 days looking for Britney Gengel, only to find her beneath the rubble of the hotel she’d been staying in.

Remembering that text, Britney’s mother and father, Len Gengel, founded Be-Like-Brit to provide a safe, nurturing children’s home for Haitian orphans.

“[Britney] wanted to go back and help, and I knew that,” said Cherylann Gengel.

“I understood that there was a bigger picture here.”

Gengel said they chose Grand Goave as the home’s location when they found their daughter’s trip itinerary. It told them that their daughter was supposed to visit Grand Goave, a fishing community located 40 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince, the day after the earthquake.

According to Len Gengel, thousands of people from around the world heard about their story via social media and donated to their cause. Within days, they had received over $150,000 from complete strangers to kick-start their daughter’s dream.

“The positive that came out of our tragedy was that we got to see how good people really are.”

It took two years to build the home. Len Gengel, who spent 30 years in the home building industry, said he made 39 trips to Haiti over those two years. Cholera outbreaks and sanitary conditions often shortened his trips.

“I would go into Haiti and build with a group of Haitians until I couldn’t stay any longer due to the water,” he said.

In January 2013, Brit’s Home opened. It now houses 66 orphaned children; 33 boys and 33 girls, symbolic of the 33 days it took to find Britney Gengel’s remains.

“We built a first-world building in a third-world country,” Len Gengel said.

“After the earthquake, we were the first earthquake-proof structure with the same seismic standards as San Francisco,” he said.

Through Be-Like-Brit’s service-immersion Britsionary Program, volunteers live at the Be-Like-Brit guesthouse. During their weeklong stay, they meet the children living inside Brit’s Home and build a home for a family living in the neighboring Oceanside community.

Each family receives beds, mattresses, an outdoor stove, and their own pregnant goat, which gives the family a source of revenue.

Francky Janvier, a 34-year-old Haitian man who received a home, now works as a Britsionary coordinator. He believes his job keeps him safe from the violence and protests that occur regularly in downtown Grand Goave, where he use to live.

“I have water and power; I have everything,” said Janvier.

“They treat me well and I’m so happy. Be-Like-Brit is my life.”

More than 110 Haitians work at Brit’s Home, making Be-Like-Brit the largest employer in Grand Goave.

Beyond Grand Goave, the partnerships between Be-Like-Brit and local high schools and colleges have brought Worcester County closer together, said Melissa Provost, the program’s community relations director.

“Haiti isn’t just a place on the map anymore here in Central Mass.,” said Provost.

In May 2012, Becker College sent the first official volunteer group to help build the home’s base. Less than a year later, St. John’s sent the first group of high school students.

“We don’t want to be called [missionaries] because we’re not trying to change the children, we’re trying to support their overall development,” said Len Gengel’s sister Christine Steinwand, a member of Be-Like-Brit’s programming committee.

Tim Williams, a faculty leader on the St. John’s trip, now works as a part-time trip leader.

“Any Britsionary I meet always tells me how much they want to go back,” said Williams.

Debra Pallatto-Fontaine, a former professor at Becker College, not only returned, but offered a new element to Brit’s Home. After retiring from Becker this past May, she opened a fourth-through-sixth-grade school called “Brit’s Academy” in September.

While offering basic writing, reading, and math classes, the academy also provides students with the business and medical skills needed to navigate adulthood in Haiti.

It’s only the latest ripple of good will from a text message sent 10 years ago.

“Our kids are only there because of Brit and that text,” said Provost.

“It’s this big ripple effect. [Britney’s] text was the pebble in the water.”

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