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9 Plastic Sheathing August 2010 Haiti, the second time around, is surreal—not just because of the earthquake’s detritus, the unexpected crack in the road that makes my stomach lurch, the random collapsed house marked with a deadly X, or the zombie eyes of the women in their market stalls who have seen so much pain they no longer see anything. It is also surreal because we are such a diffuse band of seekers. Last year’s euphoria of twenty-five volunteers buoyed by the opportunity to raise a simple smile upon this troubled land is replaced by eight discordant souls with imperfectly aligned agendas. We hatched this trip two months earlier over steak and beer on John and Paula Mulqueen’s patio. There I met Len Gengel, a guy from neighboring Rutland who found out about Forward in Health’s work in Haiti after his daughter, Britney, died in the earthquake. Britney, along with seven other students and six faculty members from Lynn University, was on a service trip to Haiti. She was dark, vivacious, and as scattered about her future as any college sophomore. People called her a pampered princess, a solid friend, a party beast, and a caring soul. I’m sure they were all correct. On the afternoon of January 12, the Lynn group visited an orphanage. Britney texted her parents back in Massachusetts: 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. When the group arrived back at the Hotel Montana that afternoon , Britney’s roommate trotted off to the pool while Britney headed for the shower. Who lives and who dies can be as arbitrary 10 Architecture by Moonlight as that. With the water rushing over her, Britney must not have heard the truck coming her way. Britney was but one of the 250,000 people who died in the 2010 Haiti earthquake: 250,000 dead is a horrific statistic; a number that invokes sympathy, even provokes rage. But 250,000 deaths numb our capacity for empathy. Empathy requires a personal connection ; something to link our comfort to the horror. We cannot empathize thousands of times over. Yet empathy’s required to fuel compassion; it propels us beyond our immediate interests and drives us to act. When we can envision ourselves in the wreckage and extend our hands to others, we raise not only the victims; we raise ourselves as well. For many Americans, Britney Gengel became the face of the Haiti earthquake. After the ground settled, Britney could not be found. The media picked up her story. Her father, Len, is a bear of a man whose emotions pop off his face. The cameras loved his palpable grief, and he wielded the exposure they provided to help find his daughter. He demanded to know what was being done to find Americans missing in Haiti; he challenged President Obama to do more. Three days after the quake, the Gengels were told that Britney had been found alive. Len and his wife, Cherylann, flew to Florida to meet their daughter, reporters in tow, only to encounter a case of mistaken identity. Ten days after the disaster Len collaborated with the US State Department as well as the media; he visited Haiti with US Representative James McGovern to monitor the search for Britney and other missing Americans. He received national attention and ensured the search for bodies continued, at least at the Hotel Montana. Len is a man of charisma and connections, energy and drive. If every family member of every victim had acted as he did, the result would have been utter chaos. Yet he helped propel the rescue effort. No protocol bound him. He bent any rules necessary to serve the agenda of finding his daughter. Thirty-three days after the earthquake, Britney’s remains were found deep in the rubble of the Hotel Montana. She was the last person accounted for from Lynn University. As he told this story in the Mulqueens’ backyard, Len’s grief was still palpable. His pain washed over me, pressed against my 11 Plastic Sheathing skin, and stifled me. His puppy dog eyes, those wide and innocent whites swimming frantically in his big head, revealed unfathomable loss. Len recounted Britney’s story so succinctly I knew he had told it a hundred times before. Yet he spoke...


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MARC Record
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