Being like Brit: Reflections on finding hope in Haiti

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Editor’s note: Sun contributor Danielle Cutillo is travelling to Haiti this week on a volunteer mission for the Be Like Brit organization, which operates an orphanage for more than 60 children in memory of Britney Gengel, a missionary who died in a devastating 2010 earthquake there. Here, Danielle, 23, a Holy Name graduate and lifelong Worcester resident, reflects on her first trip last year while preparing for her second journey, which began yesterday. Once she’s back, Danielle will tell us about her most recent experience with another column, more photos and video. Check back next week.

About a year ago my life was changed when I traveled to Grand-Goave, Haiti, to volunteer with the nonprofit organization, Be Like Brit.

Danielle in Haiti last year with one of the Be Like Brit kids.

Courtesy Danielle Cutillo

Danielle in Haiti last year with one of the Be Like Brit kids.

During her sophomore year of college, 19-year-old Britney Gengel of Rutland had signed up for a three-week mission trip to Haiti with a group from Florida-based Lynn University. A few days into her trip, Jan. 12, 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, leaving an estimated 1.5 million people initially homeless.

Hundreds of thousands perished, including Britney and five others in her group.

Not long before the earthquake hit, Britney had sent a text message 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.”

This text is what soon would change the lives of many people like me.

Britney’s parents, Cherylann and Len, wanted to make Britney’s last wish come true. They decided to build an orphanage in Grand-Goave to honor their daughter.

The organization, Be Like Brit, is now home to 33 boys and 33 girls, in remembrance of the 33 days Britney’s body was missing after the earthquake.

Danielle and a friend were "Britsionaries" last year.

Courtesy Danielle Cutillo

Danielle and a friend were “Britsionaries” last year.

Each month “Britsionaries,” the name given to their volunteers, travel down to the orphanage to visit with the children and help build a home for a local family. That’s why I’m here. Again.

I arrived yesterday and will stay through July 23, marking my second trip as a Britsionary with a few of my best friends. As a Britsionary, you are able to stay in the orphanage, bond with all of the kids, and build a small home for a local family. I can’t wait to do it all again!

My experience travelling to Haiti for the first time is still difficult to put into words. Even though Haiti is such a poor country, it is so rich in faith, hope and love.

One of my first memories from last year was driving through the streets. Upon arriving, I found the extreme poverty overwhelming. Driving through the main city and capital, Port-au-Prince, we saw sidewalks filled with people sitting in the hot, humid sun, trying to sell a variety of items, or just relaxing and people watching.

These people were not smiling, but had a more serious demeanor. It can be intimidating as one after the other stares into the van, making direct eye contact, until you wave and they wave back with a big, bright, welcoming smile. It was hard to believe more than five years had passed since the earthquake. There seemed to be more damage than ever.

The houses are more like shacks, made of concrete, cardboard and tin walls.

"It was hard to believe more than five years had passed since the earthquake. There seemed to be more damage than ever."

Courtesy Danielle Cutillo

“It was hard to believe more than five years had passed since the earthquake. There seemed to be more damage than ever.”

As we pulled into the driveway and walked into the orphanage, the 66 children greeted my group by singing “We are the World” and “Hallelujah.” When they finished singing, they ran to us and greeting us with hugs, ready to play.

Since the children speak little English, the Be Like Brit staff gave us a quick lesson to learn a few phrases in Haitian Creole. “Bonjou! Komon ou ye?” meaning “Good morning! How are you?” became part of the everyday conversation with the children. Throughout the week, our group spent time singing, dancing, swimming in the ocean, and hiking up a mountain with the children.

There was never a dull moment.

Outside of the walls of the orphanage is a space with not as much opportunity. Kids immediately ran up to the path and yelled, “You! You!” and the Britsionaries responded with “Bonjou. Komon ou ye?” Some smiled, laughed and walked away, while others grabbed our hands and continued to walk alongside us. It was an indescribable feeling, seeing these children who do not own shoes, wearing minimal clothing and are malnourished.

The average Haitian, according to Be Like Brit, eats only one meal every two days.

Danielle and other Be Like Brit volunteers build a home for a mother and four children.

Courtesy Danielle Cutillo

Danielle and other Be Like Brit volunteers build a home for a mother and four children.

After about a 5-minute walk, our group of Britsionaries arrived at a hillside spot to start building a new home for a mother and her four children, one boy and three girls. Each morning we built the house piece by piece. First the floor of concrete, then the walls and the door. We completed the week with a painting day, covering the house in bright blue and yellow.

The week was spent getting to know the family and the neighborhood kids. There were no TV shows or computer games to bond over. Instead, the children enjoyed singing and playing clap games.

On the last day, there was a blessing of the new home. One of the Haitian Be Like Brit workers translated for the family and the group.

Grand-Goave, Haiti

Courtesy Danielle Cutillo

Grand-Goave, Haiti

The most memorable moment was when the teenage son said, “When I see a cloud in the sky, I won’t have to worry about getting wet when the rain comes.” It was amazing to see how thankful this family was for what seems like so little to most Americans.

I can’t wait to be back in Grand-Goave, creating new memories with incredible people.

On the Be Like Brit Facebook page, my group leader will have a post each day about what our group is up to. If you are interested in learning more about Be Like Brit or becoming a Britsionary, visit for more information.

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