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Brit’s wish

Britney Gengel’s family is keeping her spirit alive while carrying on her dream of building an orphanage in Haiti

Britney Gengel's parents and brothers, Richie (left), Cherylann, Len, and Bernie, are going through their first Christmas without her. Britney Gengel's parents and brothers, Richie (left), Cherylann, Len, and Bernie, are going through their first Christmas without her. (John Tlumacki/ Globe Staff)
By Vivian Ho
Globe Correspondent / December 19, 2010

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HOLDEN — This time last year, Britney Gengel was home, back in Central Massachusetts on winter break and ready to start celebrating the holidays.

Known to her friends and family simply as Brit, the Lynn University sophomore loved this time of year — eating with her large extended family, going Christmas shopping, watching her favorite movie, “Elf.’’ Last year, as most years, she persuaded her youngest brother Richie, now 15, to don cheesy Christmas pajamas with her. She came up with an especially silly set that year — red footy pajamas with a snowflake and reindeer pattern.

Richie has a box full of the pajamas Brit persuaded him to wear in Christmases past. But this year, he has to follow the tradition on his own.

A few weeks after Christmas last year, Britney left for a service project in Haiti. She ended up being one of the more than 250,000 people who died in the Jan. 12 earthquake, just nine days before her 20th birthday.

This will be the Gengels’ first Christmas without Brit, but the family is doing what they can to keep her memory alive during her favorite time of year. This year, the four remaining Gengels — father Len, mother Cherylann, and brothers Richie and Bernie — will be getting ready to head down to Haiti, where they will begin construction on an orphanage in Brit’s honor.

“Serendipitous’’ is a word Len Gengel uses often, and a word he believes aptly describes the months following Brit’s death. Just three hours before the earthquake, and just a day-and-a-half after she arrived in Haiti, Brit texted her mother what would become her last wish.

“I want to move here and start an orphanage,’’ reads the text that Cherylann still has saved in her phone.

“We have an obligation as parents to honor our daughter’s last wish,’’ said Len, as he sat at the kitchen table in his Holden home, building plans sprawled out around him. “And that was to help the children of Haiti.’’

Less than a year later, the family has already settled on a building site and architectural designs, raised about $215,000, and are set to begin construction.

The Gengels are moving at a quick pace, something they said they think Brit would have approved of. Strong-willed and independent, she had an energy that drew people to her — to know Brit was to love Brit, Len said.

When she got excited, others around her couldn’t help but get excited, too, said sophomore-year roommate Nina Connolly. In the weeks before she left for Haiti, the trip was all she could talk about.

“I remember going to a gas station with her, and she saw someone’s car had the Haitian flag on it,’’ Connolly said, laughing. “She sprinted into that gas station: ‘Who’s from Haiti? I’m going there next week!’ ’’

Almost one year later, the Gengels still struggle when discussing the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. Richie left the table, and Len asked not to relive the pain — not to relive the fear and helplessness of those 33 days before Brit’s body was recovered from the rubble of the Hotel Montana and not to relive the overwhelming relief they felt when they initially were mistakenly told she was safe.

Cousin Karla Albuquerque went over to the Gengels’ home after they were told the false news. She said it felt like a party, the family’s happiness as they booked tickets to bring their only daughter home. But after reaching Florida, the Gengels’ joy was cut short when they were told it was a mistake — and Brit’s rescue mission soon became a recovery one.

“It’s unimaginable to lose your child,’’ said Len tightly. “But it’s unfathomable to lose your child twice.’’

The Gengels spent their Thanksgiving driving a 26-foot truck packed with tools and supplies to Miami, where they shipped it to Haiti in preparation for the start of construction. Having traveled to post-earthquake Haiti several times this year, the Gengels knew the supplies were needed.

Conditions have not changed much since the earthquake; if anything, they worsened after Hurricane Tomas and a cholera epidemic hit within months of each other, said Guerlince Semerzier, president of the Haitian Coalition in Somerville. And recently, disputes over the presidential election set Port-au-Prince ablaze with riots. For children especially, these uncertain conditions present a horrific challenge.

“The people who were the most vulnerable before the earthquake are equally or more vulnerable now,’’ said Boston University urban planning professor Enrique Silva, who recently returned from Haiti. “The earthquake disrupted whatever normality they had then, and before then, there were problems with abandoned children, child slavery.’’

Paul Fallon of TRO Jung-Brannen, the Boston-based architectural firm that helped design the planned orphanage, traveled with the Gengels to Haiti in August to look at other orphanages to understand how they functioned. He said the designs they have in mind will “raise the bar’’ and provide the children with more privacy than they are accustomed to in other orphanages.

Everything about the orphanage memorializes Brit in some way, Len said. The 18,000-foot, two-story building is shaped in a B, and it will provide homes for 33 boys and 33 girls — symbolic of the 33 days Brit was missing in Haiti. In September, the team secured land in Grand Goâve, a small fishing town about 1 1/2 hours from Port-au-Prince — the next stop on Brit’s itinerary.

Construction of the orphanage will cost about $1 million and will take about a 1 1/2 years to finish, said Fallon. Much of the cost comes from making the building earthquake safe.

The team has been working with Simpson Gumpertz & Heger Inc., a firm in Waltham with experience in fortifying buildings, to ensure that the natural disaster that took Brit’s life will not pose the same danger to the children in the orphanage bearing her name.

For now, the family’s focus is on getting construction started — and getting through their first Christmas without Brit. Len admitted that one of the goals behind their Thanksgiving trip was to find a way to get through their first major family holiday without her.

But after seeing photos of Britney’s last days, recovered from a classmate’s camera, Cherylann said she truly believed that this is what Brit would have wanted — to play a part in helping the country she loved to flourish.

“She was peacefully happy in every picture,’’ she said. “This wasn’t something she couldn’t wait to finish, that she was just doing, she was genuinely happy there. She was at peace.’’

Vivian Ho can be reached at vho@globe.com.

For information on donating to the Be Like Brit orphanage, please visit www.belikebrit.org.