This is the speech I gave last night at the BeLikeBrit gala.
Someone told me that there is an NGO for every 750 people in Haiti. I never verified that statistic but it feels about right. NGO’s are everywhere. Oxfam and USAID and Mission of Hope and Be Like Brit and Hands and Feet and Lifeline are names as common in Grand Goave as Macy’s and Wal-Mart and Stop ‘n’ Shop are here. They are the engines of Haitian commerce, each a name to be trusted when you’re shopping to help others. But wait a second, one of them is different. One of them is not a name. One of them is a command. Isn’t it just like Len Gengal to start a charity and instead of naming it with a noun, he makes it an order. “Be Like Brit.” Not Britney’s Orphanage or Britney’s Good Stuff, but, “Hey, you there, this is how you should act.”
So what does it mean to Be Like Brit? First of all, it means you are nineteen years old, which is not all bad. When we are nineteen the baby fat has evaporated, the pimples are finally going away, we are trim without having to stand on the scale every morning, we have hundreds of best friends forever and we are as beautiful as we will ever be. We are in college, which is more fun than not; we are living away from our family, which is totally fun; but we still have the parents to fall back on for pretty much anything we need. We feel very grown up because we can do anything we want. We are 100% potential.
When we Be Like Brit we are adventurous and fly off to Haiti during January break. Maybe we go because our friends are going, maybe we go because it meets that social service requirement for school, maybe we go because we have a keen interest in the people who live there. Probably it is ‘all of the above’ because when we are nineteen, everything we do, we do for a million reasons. We are trying on the clothes of our future selves. We toss aside the ones that don’t fit and pick up some cool threads along the way that we might want to put on later.
Being a 21st century kid / adult we use all modes of technology to communicate. Every whim gets broadcast to the world. “Just arrived PAP. The drummers at the airport are cool.” “The milk here is horrible, I want to start a dairy farm.” “When I save the world, this is where I will start.” “OMG I am so sick of beans and rice. I want to open a McDonald’s here.” Our texts bounce into cyberspace. They are the lighthouse beams that cut through the fog of youth; they clarify who we will become. The ones that resonate go viral.
“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.”
To Be Like Brit is to remain forever on that lofty apex where anything is possible and nothing poses an obstacle. Where whatever we wish becomes reality because we are supported by a firm pyramid of family and friends, resources and community. Where building a dairy farm, or a McDonald’s or even an orphanage in desperate Haiti is not beyond the realm of the possible. To Be Like Brit is to be forever young and perfect, but to make a difference.
I never met Britney Gengel; I never heard of her until five months after the earthquake. I have spent the last year trying to Be Like Brit. I haven’t had any success in the part about being nineteen and beautiful again but I often feel a special kinship with Brit when I experience the pressure of life under Len’s thumb. We are making progress, turning her final text into a substantial place to house orphans. For those of us who are still here, the burden is a light one. Britney gave us the dream, but she didn’t stay around long enough, so we have to make it real.
Paul – simply amazing, your words and your actions! The award is very much deserved! Congratulations to you!