St. John's students recall experiences as “Britsionarys”
By Bonnie Adams, Managing Editor
Shrewsbury – Many high school students take advantage of February vacation to escape to somewhere warm, perhaps Florida or the Caribbean. During this year's break, eight St. ?John's High School students did journey south to a warmer climate. But it was not a tropical vacation to paradise they were on – rather it was to the island of Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world. The students traveled there to work with the organization, “Be Like Brit.”
The story of Britney Gengel has been one that has reverberated through not only her hometown of Rutland, but indeed, now throughout the world. In 2010, the 19-year-old was visiting Haiti as part of her school Lynn University's mission trip to work with orphans there. ?But on only her second day there, Jan. 12, 2010, an earthquake struck the island nation. Britney was one of over an estimated 230,000 killed that day; her body was not found for 33 days.
To honor their daughter and her mission to help “the poorest of the poor,” the children of Haiti, Britney's parents, Len and Cherylann, founded the organization ” Be Like Brit.” Their goal is to open an orphanage in Grand Goâve, Haiti, ?that will eventually house 33 girls and 33 boys – one for each day Britney was missing.
Although several of the St. John's students had previously done missionary trips either with their school or their churches, the “Britsionarys” knew the Haitian experience would be one different from anything they had ever experienced. And, they all agreed, it was, in a number of different and surprising ways.
“I thought at first it would be depressing and maybe a little bit scary,” Forrest Owen said. “But it was really an unexpected vibrant experience.”
“It's such a paradox,” Mike Kotsopoulos said. “There's such beauty and absolute poverty.”
While there, the boys stayed at the orphanage, where they helped to work on the road leading to the main building as well as doing other light construction chores. They also got to interact with the children at the orphanage.
“The kids were great, they were so energetic,” Quinn Griffin said. “They really latched onto us. We loved being around them and playing with them.”
The students, who are used to fast-paced lives, with all of the conveniences of modern-day technology, ?such as computers and smart phones, also noted their surprise at how happy the Haitian people are with so little.
“I thought it was amazing how little you need to live on,” Jacob Dubois said.
“I only had a couple of pairs of clothes and a few books,” Owen added. “I found I could be content with that.”
“I learned that true happiness comes from simplicity,” Griffin added.
Several of the students noted the trip's impact even had them thinking about life beyond high school and college.
“This trip has planted the seed,” Tim Bibaud said. “We'se discussed taking a trip back there. I could definitely see myself making a career out of this.”
Timothy Williams and Michael Nicholson were the school's adult chaperones on the trip. Both noted that they had traveled to other parts of the world on similar trips, but nothing could really prepare one for the type of poverty Haitians face.
“I was told it was extreme there, but it was worse than I ever thought,” Williams said. “It struck me pretty hard.”
“I have been lots of different places but nothing matched what I saw there,” Nicholson added.
Some of the students said they were a “little bit nervous” about going to Haiti; their families were also a ?bit apprehensive.
“It's a mother's nature to be nervous, I guess,” Bibaud said,” but then she was ok. Overall I really got enormous support from my family and friends.”
For more information and to see photos from their trip as well as other news, go to the Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/belikebrit.
Len and Cherylann Gengel will be at Tatnuck Bookseller in Westborough Sunday, April 28, from 1 to 3 p.m. to discuss their book, “Hope and Heartache in Haiti – The Story of Britney Gengel. “
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