One of the Greatest Joys in life is to see our children shine and this past week I witnessed my son Richie doing just that. He led his fellow students and staff from High Point University into Haiti to Brit’s Home. I really enjoy it when Boss Richie appears, he takes his role and responsibility as a team leader very seriously, while having a little fun too and loves it when his fellow Haitian Workers call him Boss WRichie. (R’s are hard to say from creole to English). As a father to Richie, Bernie, Britney and now our 66 children at Brit’s Home, there are times of joy and times of despair, I chose to be the “Best version of Myself” during our family’s darkest hour… You see Richie was only 14 years old when his big sister and protector was taken twice from him in 48 hours, how unfathomable that is for any parent and how terrifying is that for a 14 year old boy who is just entering his formative years? Richie had to deal with that horrific tragedy while trying to work thru 9th grade. I will always be grateful for Eagle Hill School who came together, teachers, administrators and students that stood Richie up each day and helped him put one foot in front of the other. I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to Jenna his Advisor, Lynn his Counselor and Headmaster PJ McDonald for his Leadership and Love of our son and family!
I’m so proud of Richie for not giving up on Haiti too, one can only imagine the pain he faced the first time he got off the plane in a country where his sister took her last breath? Rich came to Haiti in the spring of 2011 with Bernie and I when we drove Bernie’s F-150 to Florida to ship to Haiti. It was a great road trip with my two boys who were becoming young men and after we dropped the truck off at the Port of Miami to ship to Haiti, we jumped on a plane and flew into Port au Prince. I remember thinking what was Richie going to hold onto on the ride from PaP to the Construction Site that we now call Brit’s Home, would it be the 2 million people living in Tent cities which were a sea of blue tarps? Would it be the horrible smell of sewer and garbage? I hoped he would get the feeling of all those suffering, as we were all suffering from the loss of our families! I had hoped it would help Richie start to heal just a little, to witness and be a part of helping the poorest of the poor, which as most of you know was his sisters last wish, even though she didn’t know it when she sent that text heard around the world just 3 hours before the earthquake killing 300,000 Haitians in 20 seconds as is estimated. I wish there was a story book ending with that trip, but it just got worst for him and then us as a family. The first year after losing any loved one is the toughest, but nobody told us that the second year was worse than the first after losing a child, that the raw reality of Britney’s death was upon us!
Richie went off to college in July of 2013, he went into the summer session entering his Freshman year at High Point University. 95% of Freshman at HPU who go to this summer program graduate on time and from HPU, we all thought it would be right up his alley. Richie loved the summer program and then entered his Freshman Year in the fall. Dr Nido the president of HPU even talked about Richie and Brit’s story at the parent/student convocation when we all dropped off our kids at college to start their lives into adulthood. Richie experienced the same home sickness that most of the other students did, but his turned into a greater challenge as he struggled with finding a major and dealing with the loss of his sister. After his freshman year, Richie and I drove a Box Truck to Miami filled with solar panels for Brit’s Home. We really bonded on that trip, the anger Richie had transferred towards me was finally subsiding. As his Dad I knew I had to pay the price for leaving him and traveling to Haiti twice a month to build Brit’s Home. He felt I abandoned him when he needed me most, never realizing that I needed to survive too and this was the only way I knew how, to build something in Brit’s honor, to show my two sons that they could overcome any challenge in their lives. To quote Vince Lombardi with a little Len Gengelism thrown in, “Everyone gets knocked down in Life, but it’s how we pick ourselves up that defines us as human beings”
After that Haiti trip in July of 2014, we celebrated Richie’s 19th birthday on August 2nd in NYC and took in a Broadway show. Shortly after that I moved to Florida, making one of the toughest decisions of my life, to end our marriage. Our boys had so much loss, to add to it was really a hard thing to do as a parent, but everyone deserves to be happy and we weren’t. Most people fake it until the make it, 75% of marriages end up in divorce when a child dies and ours fell into the majority 4 years after Brit’s death. Richie works really hard at school and currently has 3 part-time jobs while finishing up his last semester at HPU, yes he graduates in May after 4 years of perseverance, of never giving up and working harder than he ever has in his life. Yes, Richie shined his light on High Point University and he even gave up his Spring Break these past 2 years to lead teams into Haiti, but this year he did it on his own. He texted me on Thursday, saying he was in charge of Brit’s home as Cherylann had left for Worcester and Mami Love was taking 2 days off in PaP. He then reminded me he was a Be Like Brit Founding Board Member and that he was 25% owner of Brit’s Home along with Bernie, Cherylann and myself. That’s right Boss Richie you are owner, you are honoring your sister’s memory and you are Loving your 66 Brothers and Sisters in Haiti!!! Richie never gave up, he fought a great fight against so many odds and he Shined his Light on Brit’s Home this past week as he will do for generations to come, I Love You Richie Gengel with all my Heart!!!