After his 19-year-old daughter, Britney, was killed in the Haitian earthquake two years ago, Massachusetts home builder Len Gengel made a list of the things he was thankful for. Chief among them was a text message Britney had sent to her mother a few hours before the quake buried her beneath the rubble of the Hotel Montana.
“They love us so much, and everyone is so happy. 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,” the Lynn University sophomore wrote after spending the day passing out food to orphans.
In that last dispatch the Gengel family found something to latch on to; they found a way to build something good and meaningful on the foundation of a terrible loss, a way to memorialize their daughter, and a reason to keep moving to stay ahead of the grief that threatens to consume, paralyze, and embitter.
“Building an orphanage was her last wish, even though she didn’t know it,” Gengel said. “She left the greatest gift of all, a sense of purpose.”
The Gengels created a non-profit foundation named Be Like Brit and started raising money to build an orphanage in the hills on Haiti’s west coast. The organization has raised more than a million dollars and still needs to raise a half million more. The first floor is completed and the floor of the second floor has been poured. It is scheduled to open in January 2013 on the third anniversary of the earthquake.
The whole building, which is being built to survive future earthquakes, is a tribute to the teenager: It's shaped like a B for Britney; it’s 19,000 square feet, homage to her age at death; and it will be home to 33 boys and 33 girls, reference to the 33 days it took to find Britney’s body in the hotel’s wreckage. She was one of six students and professors from the university who died when the Hotel Montana collapsed, and one of more than a quarter-million people killed by the quake that day.
The Gengels say they lost their daughter twice within the two days after the quake. Thirty-six hours after the earthquake they were told that Britney was alive and on her way to Florida via helicopter. The jubilant couple left their Rutland, Mass., home immediately to fly to Florida to greet her only to be told that it was all a mistake; Britney was still missing. Bringing her home became their mission. Ten days after the quake, Len Gengel went to Haiti to search at the Hotel Montana.
“You talk about a living hell. Port-au-Prince was a living hell. The indignity was so unfathomable, as human beings you can’t imagine it,” recalled Gengel.
On the 33rd post-quake day, Valentine’s Day, Gengel got the second thing he is grateful for: Britney's body was found, and they were able to bring her home.
“I can tell you that it was an absolute miracle and blessing that we got our daughter home,” he said. “We have to count our blessings. We were able to have a Christian burial for her. She is at peace in the city where we live.”
After Britney came home, the Gengels threw themselves into the orphanage project. “That is really what my wife and I and two boys have dedicated the last two years of our lives to,” said Gengel.
That first Thanksgiving after the quake, as a way to avoid the pain of the holiday without Britney, the family bought a box truck, stuffed it with donated tools, and drove it from Boston to Miami, where it was shipped to Haiti for the build. “I had every tool, times two, in that truck,” Gengel says.
Construction has been challenging in a country where building was difficult before the quake. Still, last year Gengel managed to build 17 houses in Massachusetts, even as he made 20 trips to Haiti, spending a total of 23 weeks there. On each trip he brought hockey bags stuffed with building materials for the orphanage.
“Sometimes I look around in Haiti and go, ‘What the hell happened? What am I doing,’” Gengel mused. “But I have these beautiful children that I am building this orphanage for. The need is so great. You can’t even fathom it.”
The Gengels are finishing a book that tells the story of their loss. The proceeds are to be used to endow the completed orphanage’s operating costs.
“We just feel like we are doing our piece for Haiti,” said Gengel. “I spend a lot of time teaching survivability in building practices.”
Teresa Burney is a senior editor for Builder magazine.