When Cherylann and Leonard Gengel are awarded honorary degrees at UMass Worcester’s June 1 Commencement, they will accept in loving tribute to their late daughter, Britney, who inspired them to build an orphanage in Haiti, for the “poorest of the poor.”
“To be recognized and honored, we are humbled but we’re also very proud of Britney,” said Len Gengel, whose 19-year-old daughter was killed in the 2010 Haiti earthquake while volunteering with an aide group from her school, Lynn University. “We grew up in Worcester, and to have such a great institution honor us, but really honor Be Like Brit and the memory of our daughter, we feel very blessed.”
Chancellor Michael F. Collins will honor the Gengels, U.S. Rep. James McGovern and H. Brownell Wheeler, MD, the Harry M. Haidak Distinguished Professor emeritus and founding chair of the department of surgery at UMass Medical School, during Commencement 2014 ceremonies.
“Cherylann and Len Gengel are deeply inspirational and tremendously pragmatic; when Britney was killed in Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake, the Gengels responded in an extraordinary way, choosing to fulfill their daughter’s dream of helping Haitian orphans,” said Chancellor Collins.
More on the 2014 Commencement honorees:
--Rep. McGovern to receive Chancellor’s Medal at 41st Commencement for career of service
--UMass Medical School’s first faculty member to receive honorary degree
Three hours before the earthquake claimed her life, Britney Gengel sent a text message to her mother, a message that would give Cherylann, Len, and sons Bernie and Richie a mission to fulfill in the wake of her death.
“They love us so much and everyone is so happy,” she wrote, describing the people at the Haitian orphanage where she and fellow students on the “Journey of Hope” had volunteered on Jan. 12, 2010. “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. I already know this is what I want to do with the rest of my life.”
Britney, three of her fellow students, and two Lynn University professors lost their lives in the rubble of the Hotel Montana in Port-Au-Prince that day. Britney was missing for 33 days before her remains were recovered.
The Gengels founded the Be Like Brit Foundation to carry out their daughter’s last wish. The aim is to “to serve the children of Haiti by establishing a safe, nurturing and sustainable orphanage in an environment where they can grow, learn and thrive.”
Today, the Be Like Brit orphanage, shaped in the letter B and located in Grand Goâve, is quickly filling with children. The building is 19,000 square feet, symbolic of Britney’s 19 years, and houses an 1,150-square-foot medical clinic staffed with volunteers from UMass Memorial Health Care, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Saint Vincent Hospital.
“Our goal is to have 66 children by the year end, and that’s 33 girls and 33 boys and that represents the 33 days that Britney was missing in the rubble of the Hotel Montana,” Cherylann Gengel said. “Right now, we have 45 children, and we’re on track to have 66, our extended family.”
The Gengels say their daughter always stood up for the less fortunate.
“She was just a regular kid, she was like every other teenager and really just a great kid,” Cherylann Gengel said. “All through her life she was the kind of kid that stood up for the underdog, protector of all, and she wanted to do good. That’s one of the reasons she went to Haiti, she really wanted to help the poorest of the poor. We’re tried to honor that, and we continue to do that, thanks to the help of thousands of people.”