By JEFF MEYERS
---- — PLATTSBURGH — Britney Gengel was a 19-year-old communications major at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., when she decided to travel to Haiti with several other members of the college on a “mission of hope” to visit orphans of the impoverished nation.
The gesture of humanity turned tragic; however, when Britney and six members of her party perished during the January 2010 earthquake that claimed an estimated 230,000 people.
Three hours before the earthquake struck, Britney had sent a text message to her family in Massachusetts describing how she was touched by the children of Haiti and wanted to return there after college to dedicate her life to those children.
It was the last time her family would hear from her, but it was just the beginning of their efforts to continue her dream by constructing a new orphanage to provide refuge for the children left decimated by the tragic quake.
Be Like Brit is the nonprofit organization created by the Gengel family that has resulted in a full-service orphanage in Haiti. The facility is scheduled to open in early January with Plattsburgh native Jonathan LaMare hired on as program director.
“Everything about this orphanage is symbolic of Britney’s desires,” LaMare said of the past two years’ efforts to complete the project. “It’s a dedication to the person she was and all that she wanted to do.”
For instance, the orphanage itself is built in the shape of a “B” and was constructed on the land where she and her colleagues were going to visit before the earthquake hit.
The orphanage will also officially open on the third anniversary date of the earthquake, LaMare noted.
“It’s absolutely incredible,” he said of the Gengel family’s efforts to bring this project forward. “You can’t help but feel impressed with what this organization has done.”
LaMare signed a three-year contract as program director and will be responsible for training the staff and recruiting orphans from the still-reeling nation.
In fact, Be Like Brit hopes to recruit the orphanage’s first residents on Britney’s birthday, Jan. 21.
“There are still several hundred-thousand people living in tents, a lot of children who lost both parents (during the earthquake),” he said. “This is one step in helping to fill a need that Britney saw when she was here.”
LaMare will become a full-time resident of the orphanage, which will have electricity but will not have such comforts as television and Internet access.
LaMare graduated from Plattsburgh State and received his master’s in social work from Tulane University. He gained some valuable experience as a graduate student while working in Rwanda to help create a program to address children’s mental-health issues in that country.
He has been teaching in the Sociology Department of Plattsburgh State this past semester and was the Campus Life director for one of the residence halls for Clinton Community College.
LaMare also received a call recently from Sister Debbie Blow of Seton Catholic, who has been spearheading the local Mission of Hope humanitarian effort in Nicaragua. She called to praise LaMare for his efforts and to wish him luck with his endeavors, he said.
Another local connection to Britney Gengel’s memorial to the children of Haiti comes from LaMare’s relatives, the owners of Monahan Brothers Inc. in Plattsburgh, who have donated $30,000 in materials and $25,000 in labor to place a roof on the orphanage, the final step in making the building habitable.
“My father (Brian Monahan), one of his foremen and I will fly down for five days in January to completely install the entire 11,000 square-foot roof,” said Lanai Monahan, who is LaMare’s second cousin.
Brian Monahan visited the site in October with LaMare and identified the roof as a major need, she added. The current roof is a concrete slab that leaks during heavy rainstorms.
“He (Brian) was struck by how awesome this project is,” she said of her father’s impression of the orphanage.
The Monahans are also collecting funds to purchase a variety of items, such as sunglasses, to bring down to the children as introductory gifts, she added.
“I’m excited,” LaMare said of his approaching adventure, noting that he will be in Haiti for the next three years but is looking at his new position as a long-term opportunity.
Email Jeff Meyers:
firstname.lastname@example.orgTO LEARN MORE For more information on the Be Like Brit campaign, visit www.belikebrit.org. People can also follow the activities of the new orphanage on Facebook by searching for "Be Like Brit" and on Twitter @belikebrit. To donate to the Monahan fundraising effort, visit http://is.gd/rMxoqx.