Three hours before the earthquake that claimed the life of her daughter—and hundreds of thousands of other victims—Cherylann Gengel received a text that, unbeknownst to her, would ultimately save lives in Haiti.
“I can honestly say that something happened to Britney before the earthquake,” Cherylann says of her daughter, one of six Lynn University representatives (four students and two faculty) who died Jan. 12, 2010 while on a humanitarian mission in Haiti. “She was so touched by the children—and so upset by what she saw. …
“This was Brit’s last wish: to build an orphanage.”
This past Jan. 21, on what would have been Britney’s 23rd birthday, an orphanage in Grand Goåve, Haiti—a 19,000-square-foot facility that’s not only built in her name but is shaped like the letter “B”—accepted its first child. By this spring, 19 true orphans and abandoned children had found a new home thanks to the inspired work of Cherylann Gengel and husband Len.
The Massachusetts residents, who chronicled their journey in the book,Heartache and Hope in Haiti, spoke to Boca Raton about realizing their daughter’s dream. Here are more excerpts from the original interview.
On the challenges of building the orphanage
Len: “I made 39 trips to Haiti from Boston over a two-year period. I spent more time in Haiti than I did at home. Cherylann spent all that time fundraising; we raised $1.4 million and put $600,000 of our own money into the building. I’ve been a home builder for 30 years; I retired this year. We’re traveling the country, talking about heartache and hope in Haiti. We’ve taken the impossible, and we’ve done it.”
Cherylann: “I knew what I didn’t want for the orphanage. We went to one that had 46 boys, maybe 21 beds. Of those 21 beds, only a third of them had mattresses. No plumbing, no showers, no food. … I was physically sick when I came home.”
Len: “Never in our marriage had I seen her so upset.”
On overcoming the challenges
Cherylann: “If you know Len, once he sets his mind to something, failure is just not an option. He’s determined to get it done. … That’s how he grieved. He grieved in Haiti; that’s where his energy went.”
Len: “We have a very strong faith, and we believe that Brit’s orphanage is built on faith, hope and love. Those three words are on Brit’s gravestone. It’s the true meaning of our faith. We know she’s in a better place. Are our hearts broken? Absolutely. Would we give it all back tomorrow to have our daughter back? One hundred percent. Was this in our retirement plan? Not really. We’ve sold our vacation home in New Hampshire and put the money into the orphanage. And poor us, right? We had to sell that home. But we did have a retirement plan, and these were the things we had to do to build this orphanage. … As I tease my wife, ‘Oh, I built you a place in the Caribbean; you can winter down there.”