Lives transformed; St. John's group visits Be Like Brit Orphanage in Haiti.
SHREWSBURY - The eight students at St. John's High School who recently returned from Haiti said that as much as social media allowed family and friends to enjoy the experience of their mission trip in a virtual way, there are shortcomings where technology is concerned.
"I would try to explain things that had happened to them and they would say, `Oh yeah, we saw the pictures on Facebook,' " said St. John's junior Quinn Griffin. "But you can't feel what it is like unless you are there."
For young adults coming of age in a tech-dependent world, the experience marked a realization that the moment they were living in far surpassed anything that might happen on their laptops. The students agreed that after visiting the Be Like Brit Orphanage in Grand Goave through the school's Global Encounters program, they will never be the same people they were upon their departure.
"I am already planning my next trip," said SJHS junior Tim Bibaud, who was surprised by how attached he became to the children at the orphanage and how deeply the experience affected him.
Several times each year, St. John's participates in mission trips - this trip to Haiti was arranged through the Be Like Brit organization - as a way to not only bring labor and support to areas where help is needed, but to provide the students with an enriching and educational experience that might implore them to continue to live a life of service, even beyond high school.
According to Mike Nicholson, the school's director of campus ministry, the students know they are not going into these areas with a goal of fighting crime or poverty. "The idea is simply to plant the seed of service in their lives and hope that it continues," he said.
This intention is realized, each and every year, again and again. He said that it happens naturally when the students make real connections with people beyond their own comfortable lives, and start to see the impact they can have in the global community.
"I have definitely been inspired," said Mr. Griffin, adding that while he previously imagined a life devoted to an academic pursuit of some sort, he now knows his heart lies in social work.
In fitting with the program's intentions, the students' experience went far beyond helping to build the road that leads to the newly opened orphanage that was constructed in honor of Britney Gengel of Rutland, who while on a service trip through Lynn University fell victim to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Ms. Gengel, while on that trip, had immediately fallen in love with the Haitian people and wanted to devote her life to helping them.
Those dreams were quickly cut short, but her legacy was born of a single text message - just before the earthquake ended her life and the lives of thousands of others, including those Americans who had accompanied her on the trip - sent to her parents: "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."
SJHS, indeed, noticed that Ms. Gengel's observations about the people of Haiti had been just the beginning.
"There is so much poverty and loss, but the vibe is not one of depression," said junior Jacob Dubois. "They have the one thing you can't buy. They are happy."
St. John's students are among some of the first groups to be a part of the orphanage since the children were brought in. St. John's popular Global Encounters program, run through the Campus Ministry office, brings students to sites across America and around the world in an effort to bring compassion and aid to communities in need and serve the underserved, in addition to drawing the educational experience outside of the classroom and into the global community.
The Be Like Brit orphanage and Poorest of the Poor Fund were established in her honor by her adoring family, with a mission "to serve the children of Haiti by establishing a safe, nurturing and sustainable orphanage in an environment where they can grow, learn and thrive."
"They have taken this tragic thing and turned it into something so beautiful," SJHS senior Mike Kotsopoulos said of the orphanage, adding that the entire group was inspired by the Gengel family's love and dedication to honoring their daughter's life.
The eight students who traveled to Haiti with Mr. Nicholson and teacher Tim Williams were Tim Bibaud, Brendan Brosnihan, PJ Browne, Jacob Dubois, Zach Gresham, Quinn Griffin, Mike Kotsopoulos and Forrest Owen.
To support the Be Like Brit organization, the public is welcome to participate in a "Bowling for Brit" fundraiser from 7 p.m. to midnight April 6 at AMF Town & Country Lanes in Shrewsbury. Information and tickets are available at www.belikebrit.org.
PHOTOG: (1 AND 2) SUBMITTED PHOTOS; (3) AMANDA ROBERGE
CUTLINE: (1 AND 2) The St. John's students who visited the Be Like Brit Orphanage in Haiti were deeply touched by the experience. "I am already planning my next trip," said junior Tim Bibaud. (3) From left are Quinn Griffin, Forrest Owen, Jacob Dubois, Mike Kotsopoulos, Tim Bibaud, Brendan Brosnihan, Director of Campus Ministry Mike Nicholson and PJ Browne. Missing from photo are Zach Gresham and teacher Tim Williams.