This article was featured in Greenville Online on May 21, 2014
Written by: Angelia Davis
Haiti was the furthest thing from Len Gengel’s mind four and a half years ago, before the earthquake that killed his 19-year-old daughter, Britney. Now Haiti is the main focus of his life.
After 39 visits over two years, Gengel’s plans to build an orphanage in Haiti in honor of his beloved “Brit” have been fulfilled.
Local homebuilders are helping Gengel, a retired builder from Boston, raise money for operations and other outreach efforts.
“I can’t think of wanting to do anything more in this world than helping the children of Haiti,” he said.
Neither could Britney. She was on a “Journey of Hope” mission in Haiti with a group from Florida’s Lynn University when the earthquake hit the island in January 2010.
Just three hours earlier, she had sent a text to her mother, saying she wanted to move to Haiti and start her own orphanage.
Three other women students and two faculty members died with Britney when their hotel collapsed.
Soon after that, Gengel began planning the orphanage. The nonprofit BeLikeBrit: Britney Gengel’s Poorest of the Poor Fund Inc., was established to help with the project.
More than $2 million was raised from people all over the U.S. to build the Be Like Brit orphanage, Gengel said.
The 19,000-square-foot orphanage, shaped like the letter B, is designed to hold 33 girls and 33 boys, symbolic of the 33 days that Britney had been missing in the rubble at the hotel.
In 2010, Gus and Belinda Rubio, owners of Gabriel Builders Inc. in Greer, spearheaded the local contributions of money and materials to build the orphanage.
This month, the Rubios sponsored an event at the home of Ben and Bennie Whipple in the Cliffs at Mountain Park to help raise operations revenue.
The Rubios and the Gengels met years ago through their mutual membership in the National Builder Club 20, a program of the National Association of Home Builders.
Belinda Rubio said customers of Gabriel Builders, vendors, business partners, friends and family, and residents from the Cliffs Communities have been giving to efforts of Be Like Brit. Nearly $40,000 was raised during the one-night event at the Whipples, she said.
“Britney’s tragic story moves people because she was so young and doing something so wonderful to help the orphans of Haiti when she perished,” Belinda Rubio said.
“The amazing part of the story is that her parents have been able to build the orphanage in a Third World country while grieving over the loss of their only daughter. The grace of God and their hard work have allowed them to accomplish this amazing feat.
Gengel said many people laughed and told him that going into the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere and building an earthquake-proof structure couldn’t be done.
“Many people said I was crazy, but many, many more not only said I could do it, but helped raise money through a grassroots effort,” he said.
The orphanage was built in Grand Goave, about an hour and a half south of Port-au-Prince. Grand Goave was where Britney was supposed to travel the day after the quake.
The orphanage has six missionary rooms called “Brissionary rooms.” The number of Brissionary rooms honors the six from Lynn University who died in the earthquake. The facility’s other features includes medical rooms, an infirmary, a laboratory, an outdoor chapel and a playground.
The orphanage employs 53 Haitian workers, Gengel said. It operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Len and Cherylann Gengel both retired in 2012. But both work full time, without a salary, overseeing the orphanage’s operations.
“We’re dedicating our lives not only to the children of Haiti, but we also do community outreach, Gengel said.
He said the text from his daughter, in which she also spoke of how the people in Haiti worked hard, had little and yet were happy, “inspired us to kind of put one foot in front of the other.”
The Rubios were inspired by the Gengels. Their entire family donated a nanotechnology water filter to the orphanage, which enables it to get 10 gallons of clean, purified water per minute.
“Because of that, we’re able to fill two 500-gallon tanks every day, and we give 1,000 gallons of water to the mountain folk so they have clean, purified water as well every single day,” Gengel said.
“That’s making a difference.”
In 2013, Engineering News-Record international magazine honored the Be Like Brit orphanage with its Global Best Projects Award in the residential/hospitality category.
The Gengels were initially told that their daughter had been found safe at the hotel and would be flown to Florida. They arrived in Florida for a reunion with her only to learn that she was still among the missing in Haiti.
“When you lose a child, it’s every parent’s nightmare, but to lose your daughter twice in 48 hours is just unfathomable,” he said.
They took that heartache and their love for their daughter, and put it all into the orphanage. They set out to help others, Gengel said, and also found themselves on the receiving end.
“That’s what I mean when I say Haiti gave us more than we gave and continue to give Haiti.”
YOU CAN HELP!