Circling Back

A message from Jonathan...


In the early fall of 2012, as I entered my second semester as an adjunct instructor at SUNY Plattsburgh, in the Sociology department, I felt this overwhelming sense of ennui in my life. My experience working in Rwanda as a part of my master of social work program with Tulane University had indeed rekindled my wanderlust. I had been so fortunate to work and travel abroad extensively early on in my career, long before the days I would espouse the sentiments and values which would draw me to work in areas of human rights and social justice. As a result, I've since had this sort of seeming inability to stay in one place for very long. Like an addiction that craves its next fix, mine is the wonder and the excitement of travel. Of new places, new cultures, new languages, new people. Haiti, however, it seems is a different story...


That longing for something new ultimately brought me to an interview, in a restaurant in Boston, with Len and Cherylann Gengel, and Len's sister Chris, who serves as the Chair of the Program Committee at Be Like Brit. I remember feeling entirely unqualified and unprepared for the job, and feeling amazed that I had landed this third-round interview. We sat at the table and discussed the position and the organization at length; Chris, a child psychologist, grilled me fairly hard, challenging my ability to speak coherently to areas of psychosocial development and other child development theories. It was near the end of this interview when Len and Cherylann said quite directly that once you are in the Gengel Family, there is no getting out. Indeed, like a foot fungus (Cherylann's words!), they were tough to get rid of. We know the rest of that story and how it went, and I signed my contract just more than a month later after a visit to Haiti to see their work first-hand.



Two and a half years later, with sixty-six children and hundreds of new friends later, I made the decision to leave Be Like Brit, six months ahead of my contract expiration, to explore other areas of work in Haiti. In true Gengel fashion, indeed, as any family would do, they supported my decision. It was not an easy decision to make, and it was not easy to leave. Len and Cherylann supported my new ambitions and helped me make the transition to a new home and work in Port-au-Prince.


The transition to a new job and a new life were far from easy, either. Len and Cherylann continued to be their typically generous and supportive selves. When I needed to get out of the chaos of the city of Port, a place for me was always reserved at the table at Be Like Brit. I enjoyed a few visits to Grand Goâve, spending time with the children I helped bring in to BLB, sitting around the table with Britsionarys reflecting on their experience and sharing with them my perspective and insights into this complex country. I always knew that I had them in my corner, even after leaving them ahead of schedule. They did not forget about me.


Recently, Len reached out to me and invited me to lunch on a day he arrived in Port. He had some business to discuss concerning the NGO licensure and the IBESR status for the orphanage - things I had worked on for them while an employee. It was great to catch up and spend some time together just one-on-one. Like the day in January, 2013, after the dedication of Brit's Orphanage was complete and everyone was heading back to the U.S., Len put his hand on my shoulder and said, "this is your home." I have never forgotten that.



So, without boring you with all of the details and going into why and how all of this is relevant, I am so happy to be able to announce to you that I am returning to work at Be Like Brit on July 1st! My role, however, will be quite a bit different! While I will always be a social worker first, and always have the history and rapport I have with the children at BLB, I am returning as the Country Director, as Gama prepares to phase out after dedicating five years of his life to Len and Cherylann. Knowing full well how huge those shoes are to fill, and not presuming to ever be able to do what Gama (Mr Incredible) does, I do have a new sense of confidence and appreciation for the tasks at hand. 


With my departure, Len and Cherylann took great care in putting qualified people in places to cover the work I had been doing, and those systems are working well! I am looking forward to my new role, where I will be spending time on development and building relationships with our supporters and donors who so generously and selflessly continue to give so that we can honor Brit's legacy and raise these children up to be the next generation of leaders in Haiti. I look forward to managing both the operations and the program side of the organization, as we turn another page, filled with exciting changes and challenges yet unknown.


I always knew that Be Like Brit would be a part of my life forever - no matter what. I did not predict or anticipate returning to Be Like Brit, either. As I sit here and write this from my apartment in Port-au-Prince, I am filled with excitement and anticipation for driving up that steep hill, to the glowing "B" on the top of a mountain, knowing full well that when I enter those walls, I will be welcomed home by the children and staff alike. That's a pretty overwhelming feeling, and I feel very fortunate to be the recipient of that love. 


It's been the adventure of a lifetime, and there's much more to come!