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Turning tragedy into opportunity

Matt Pais

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Hertel sponsors MDRT Foundation grant for Be Like Brit Foundation in Haiti.

Doing nothing is always the easiest thing to do. It takes the least effort. It involves the least risk. And it’s certainly not difficult to understand how parents mourning the loss of a child would see doing anything as an impossible task — much less starting a foundation in honor of their late daughter’s dream.

But Cherylann and Len Gengel got to work after their 19-year-old daughter, Britney, died in Haiti in 2010 during an earthquake that claimed the lives of more than 300,000 people. Just three hours before the earthquake, Britney, who was there as part of her college’s “Journey of Hope” service program and was staying in a hotel that collapsed, sent this text to her mother:

“They love us so much and everyone is so happy. 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.”

That empathy, determination and humanitarian goal are what drove Gengel’s parents to start the Be Like Brit Foundation, which in 2020 received a $3,000 grant from the MDRT Foundation, sponsored by MDRT member Julianne Hertel, CLTC.

“I am really inspired by people that did not set out to change the world,” said Hertel, a five-year MDRT member from Worcester, Massachusetts. “They were thrust into some circumstances where they realized they could do something to help somebody else, and in the end they accomplished absolutely amazing things. They decided to take all their grief from this tragedy and turn it into this dying wish.”

The story had a local connection to Hertel, as well. Though she did not know the Gengels in 2010, they lived nearby in a suburban Boston community that Hertel said is so small that you’re always one degree away from knowing someone. So in the 33 days that passed between the earthquake and Britney’s body being found, Hertel knew many people from different parts of her life who knew the Gengels, and was glued to the news and social media for updates. This included a congressman traveling with Len to Haiti when Britney’s body was supposedly found, only to have the body later identified as someone else.

At the time, Hertel recalls, the story was simply that a young woman from the community was missing. Yet less than eight months later, land was purchased in Grand Goave, Haiti, for what would become Brit’s Home, which opened in 2013. The orphanage has room for 33 boys and 33 girls to live, a reference to the number of days it took to find Britney’s body.

And not just live — Brit’s Home also includes an on-site school called the Be Like Brit Academy, and the money from the MDRT Foundation grant went toward hiring additional teachers for the school. Its goals include:

  • Providing access to the same education for all children at Brit’s Home, regardless of age or educational level
  • Providing support to children with special needs to encourage their strengths and foster success where traditional classrooms in Haiti previously struggled
  • Generating growth in not just reading, writing, history and other academic subjects, but using technology and field trips to develop life skills in entrepreneurship, financial management, and health and sex education classes

And because Brit’s Academy operates within the building at Brit’s Home, the children still have been able to safely attend classes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For Hertel, the achievements of the Gengel family and the Be Like Brit Foundation continue to grow and amaze. That ranges from simply creating the orphanage to developing its own educational system, building a well to provide clean water for the community, and creating the Britsionary program (in other words, Brit-inspired missionaries) for volunteers to build houses for local families in just one week.

It’s why in 2019, around the same time she applied for the MDRT Foundation grant, Hertel’s practice sponsored a fundraising walk for Be Like Brit, bringing out a team of friends and clients to walk in support of the organization. Once it is safe to do so post-pandemic, Hertel hopes to be able to volunteer with the organization in Haiti as well.

“I can’t stress enough how inspiring Britney’s parents are,” Hertel said. “They were just normal people. They were your next-door neighbors. They could’ve done nothing in the face of tragedy. But they have truly changed the world.”

Contact: Julianne Hertel jhertel@ft.newyorklife.com

 

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