January 12, 2010 would change the lives of so many families. The Gengel family, a close knit, would bear the burden of a tragic earthquake in Haiti that took their daughter Britney. Food for the Poor was the organization that sponsored the trip for these young students from Lynn University to go this underdeveloped country and help so many people. Wanting to help so many you hear the voices of her parents, Len and Cherylann along with Brit’s as they take you on a journey that most parents would never want to start no less complete in a book that is so powerful and heart wrenching: Heartache and Hope in Haiti. From the moment she decided to Haiti her parents investigated those in charge, researched where she would be staying and made sure that the proper supervision was in place. But, Cherylann and Len Gengel tell us a different story at first. They allow the reader to get to know this amazing young woman, her flaws, her perfects and her drive to become all that she wanted to be but in her own way. Brit was headstrong, smart and yet had difficulty focusing on her studies in school. Learning she had ADD her parents tempered the way she did homework, other skills and adapted to her disability. But, Brit never let anything get her down and when people criticized her or when push came to shove and she came in contact with rude and undisciplined young people rather than cower she faced up to adversity head on.
As you read Chapter One you learn about her drive, her ideals and her need for independence and how her parents respected her for whom she was and would always be even today, although she is gone. The two voices of each parent ring through each chapter as we hear Cherylann’s account of various incidents, how she enlisted Brit’s help at Christmas time to help those less fortunate and how Len, the father was so proud of her inner drive, passion, toughness and her no holds barred attitude when faced with those that were jealous of her, would call her unwarranted names and would confront her for no reason in a negative way. The authors begin our journey to Haiti three hours before the earthquake as Cherylann is speaking to Brit, learning about the trip and trying to understand how she dealt with the uneasy and unwelcome reception from some of the locals. Explaining how she and the others were able to win them over, make them realize they were there to help not pity them, endears you to her from the start. But, the conversation cut short because her mom was on the other line, she had to get ready to meet with friends and the lines of communication would severe forever. Not long after hanging up with her daughter was she swarmed with phone calls relating that there was a quake, did they hear from their daughter, could they relate any information and what did they think? All of these questions and many more rushed through their minds as the calls continued, the media seemed a little barren in their news about the quake and many parents, especially Brit’s had severe pangs of anxiety and fear.
Both parents share their thoughts and remembrances about this remarkable young woman as we learn what happens, the people they contacted and the frustration faced when Food for the Poor turned over getting any information to the University being too overwhelmed. But with the help of many state officials, close friends and relatives they began to piece together some of what happened but not all. As they recall the many times that Brit stuck up for her friends, faced conflicts head on, even sparring with her brothers, their love and the caring for her and each other shines through in every word. Information not really complete, some saying the Hotel Montana where the volunteers were staying was in tact, others saying it was gone and some in disrepair but not completely gone, the information did not relieve their tension and Brit was still not found. When two of her friend’s parents called to say they were okay their hope soared but not for long. Bernie her brother trying to find out more using his connections in the media and her youngest brother Richie more affected by the news, this family really needed to pull together and they did. Each one concerned for the other, never giving up and praying for the best, what they eventually learn would more than shatter them. So, how could Food for the Poor maintain a no-talk policy? But, the Vice President of the University would intervene and hopefully would provide some comfort and news. So, when a call comes through that Brit was rescued imagined their short-lived relief. Cherylann and more than thirty members of her family along with Len’s banned together to find out what happened to Brit and to lend their support to others. But, why had they said she was okay? Then, Len and Cherylann go to Haiti where the harsh truth and realities set in.
As the Intel came into the newsroom and was passed to both Len and Cherylann hope was ignited soon to have its flame put out. With the Today Show airing that they found Brit and later having to recount their words the heaviness in their hearts would never wane. When Len finally makes the right connections, alerts the right politicians and finally sees the devastation for himself as he alights from the plane in Haiti he sees two separate worlds. One of those untouched and unscathed and another filled with acrid odors, devastation and the harsh reality when facing the Hotel Montana and seeing what lied within her damaged walls. Bringing Brit home was next and even that did not go without its problems but without it all both Len and Cherylann leaned on their strengthens and tossed aside their weaknesses in order to fulfill her lifelong dream.
Building an Orphanage in Grand Goave, Haiti was their task and they would stop at nothing until it was completed. The orphanage: Be-Like Brit was their life’s work. With the aid of Paul Novak they established the Brittany Gengal Poorest of Poorest Fund. Read Chapter 10 and hear their voices and understand their need to complete this project and the gratification when completed. Take this journey along with Cherylann and Len from start to finish as they create this great more than just a tribute to Brit.
Rebuilding their lives and remembering their daughter they flashback to the many times she rebelled, did the same things teens do when they want their own way and finally learning from their mistakes. Watching as they build the orphanage, the jobs it created for so many and the joy of watching it become a reality. Family holidays changed but the location did not. Throughout the book we hear two distinct voices loud and clear. In order to delineate between them the authors chose different fonts for their sections in order to express their feelings and innermost thoughts in their own private way.
Kind, nonjudgmental, friendly, caring and outgoing were just some of the words to describe Brit. As Len spent his time in Haiti completing the orphanage and overseeing its construction, Cherylann had to make peace within herself and find her own way. Imagining the devastation in his own mind could not be compared to seeing and living it firsthand. No toilets, no water, and no electricity: Nothing! Imagine bathing in a public bath, carrying your water in buckets and growing your own vegetables in order to survive. No free public education. You have to pay for school, tuition and books or your child did not go to school. Friends of Brit that survived stated her concerns and how she felt about what she learned and saw and how lucky our children are with the limitless advantages and opportunities afforded here. The project completed and one special request: Food for the Poor provided amazing support and one final request came from Len: a special memorial plague to tell the story about those that lost their lives in pursuing their goals for the future. Read how it all comes together, read how her friends honored her and read how one family made a young girl’s dream come true.
Told by both Cherylann and Len in their own words this story relates the love, the caring and the hope that a miracle would have occurred and the disappointment and heartache that it never came to pass. As you read each section, each chapter you will take the journey along with the entire Gengel family from the moment Britney disconnected her call with her mother to the unreal and harsh realization that an earthquake occurred and that the life of one special young girl ended.
“This little light of mine, it will always shine. This little light of Britney’s will forever illuminate the walls, the sky and the ground where Be Like Brit stands now and forever. This little light of mine will shine over her family, parents and friends forever as a special guardian angel protecting the ones she loves that fulfilled her hopes and dreams.” Remember that phone call where she explained and described what happened when she and her group of volunteers and teachers tries to reach out to the people and were you might say in our terms shot down in words. Remember how she rose above. It was at that moment Britney fulfilled part of her dream and with the help of her family and the text message on page 269 that Brit sent that would start it all.
Fran Lewis: Reviewer