For these three PA Students, happy holidays were best spent helping the less fortunate in rural Haiti. Read their heartwarming tale of service at the Be Like Brit orphanage.
Class of ’15 PA Students in Haiti
“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.”
That was a text message Britney Gengel sent to her mother from Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Just hours later, she lost her life in the catastrophic earthquake of January 12, 2010. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed, and most of the already-poor island nation was sent spiraling into chaos.
Gengel’s parents were determined to see their daughter’s final thoughts become reality. In the years after her passing, the organization named after their daughter, Be Like Brit, opened an orphanage in the rural coastal town of Grand-Goâve, Haiti. Gengel had planned to travel there the day after the earthquake.
In October 2011, Bay Path PA student Ryan Hester G’15, traveled with his fiancé to the island nation. She had worked with the Be Like Brit organization while the group organized the resources necessary to see Britney’s dream become a reality.
“My fiancé spoke so highly of it,” he remembered. “I just had to see for myself.”
On his first trip there, the orphanage construction was just finished. A second trip in May 2013 found him building bunk beds and helping with other manual tasks at the rural site.
Like participants in other international aid service missions, these Britsonaries, as they’re called, are often tasked with labor-based work. That wasn’t a daunting proposition for Hester to return. Nor did such a forecast dissuade two of his classmates, Courtney Opalenik G’15 and Hoang Trinh G’15, from joining him on his third trip to Haiti over this past holiday vacation.
“When we first met Ryan, we quickly learned how much he loved going to Haiti to work with Be Like Brit,” Opalenik remembered. “We have three weeks break from the PA program at this time, and it just seemed like a perfect experience to be able to give these orphans their first-ever Christmas. We jumped right on board.”
Prepared to be hammering nails, painting, or any number of other tasks, the trio was pleasantly surprised that midway through their weeklong trip, they had a chance to let their Bay Path training make a bold impact for some young lives. “Three children had just come to the orphanage, so we each had the chance to do a wellness check on a them,” Trinh said. “Children alone are sometimes tough to work with, but here they didn’t speak English, either! These kids have never seen a stethoscope or an otoscope.”
Luckily, the universal language of lollipops helped to bridge the gap. “That and holding them,” Hester said.
For Trinh, it was his first-ever pediatric experience—all three just received their white coats this past fall and haven’t undertaken their clinical rounds yet. “Going into the trip, I thought that working with the orphans would be heartbreaking. But you never really are prepared until you get there.
“At times, it was heartbreaking,” he continued. “But also heartmending, being able to make a difference in their lives.”
The three PA students also helped with rounds at a nearby maternity clinic, which made a profound impact on them. It was a chance of a lifetime, Trinh said. “It was a great surprise for me to have access to helping out clinically, and to have the chance to apply what we’ve learned.”
During their time in Grand-Goâve, the three found an interesting parallel with their academic experience back home. The Bay Path PA program places an important emphasis on training medical professionals for the local and regional community. Our PAs will be the future care givers for western Massachusetts and the surrounding area.
In Haiti, the Be Like Brit orphanage has made an significant impact in their own community. Opalenik said that new families, homes, and lives are all sprouting up around in Grand-Goâve. As the proverb says, it takes a village to raise a child, but here, because of some children, a village was created. “To hear that all these families were new to the area around the orphanage,” she said, “it really was because of the resources that Be Like Brit brings to this town.
Once again, Bay Path PA students helping to make an impact in their community—even if it’s 1,500 miles from home.
Eventually, the orphanage’s clinic would like to expand its services to this burgeoning area. And when that happens, there’s a good chance that Hester, Opalenik, and Trinh will be some of those medical professionals helping out. The doctors are in.
“Who knows,” Trinh pondered. “When the clinic is open to the community, maybe that’s a link that we can establish with the PA program at Bay Path. This trip did solidify for me how much I want to go into primary care.”
For Hester, his love for the land was reaffirmed. He looks forward to returning to Grand-Goâve, and the orphanage.
“To see an orphanage go up and then a community built up around it,” he said, “that’s when you know that what you’re doing is important.”