By Collier Rice
On Jan. 12, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake rocked the island of Haiti. The total destruction was covered by local and national media outlets.
The loss of life was staggering and far-reaching. In such close proximity, South Florida felt the aftershocks.
While many are scrambling to rebuild the nation, let us remember those who ventured to Haiti before the tragedy, to spread education, hope and love.
Lynn University in Boca Raton is a private school of approximately 2,400 students. A team of 14 students and faculty was in Haiti as part of “Journey of Hope” mission at the time of the earthquake. Eight were evacuated shortly after the quake and returned to campus. However, six were left unaccounted for.
Weeks went by as the search continued, each day becoming more difficult. As rescue workers sifted through the rubble of the Hotel Montana where Lynn students and faculty were staying, South Florida held its collective breath, waiting for answers.
On Jan. 27, Lynn University president Kevin Ross said it was time to grieve.
“We had waited for good news, hoped for a miracle, prayed for a different outcome, but apparently it is not to be,” Ross said.
Over the last few days, the remains of the missing Lynn personnel and students have been discovered.
“The loss is devastating because this is a small campus,” Lynn student Patti-Joy Nagy said. “The faculty is small and I know most of the staff so the loss has struck me on a very personal level. It’s not someone you know of; it’s someone you know.”
On Feb. 10, 23-year-old Courtney Hayes, from Douglas, Ga., was the first found. While comments from Hayes’ family have been understandably minimal, a student posting on Lynn’s Web site outlines Courtney’s spirit.
“Courtney Elizabeth Hayes went [to Haiti] to change the world. She did, for she died trying and the story of her big heart spread around the world, inspiring people across the planet,” said the student.
Dismal news continued on Feb. 11, confirming the death of Lynn student Christine Gianacaci.
“We are devastated to have lost Christine, a young woman who was a bright light in the life of her family, friends, classmates and teachers,” Ross said.
Student Stephanie Crispinelli and Dean of Education Patrick Hartwick were confirmed dead on Feb. 12.
“I am deeply saddened to learn about the loss of Stephanie,” Ross said. “She had a real passion for serving others.”
Lisa Helfrich, an education professor at Lynn, was a close friend of Hartwick’s.
“This is my first year at Lynn but I’ve know [Hartwick] for a few years,” Helfrich said. “Everyone in the department was hopeful but I think now everyone wants to carry on and do what he would want them to do.”
Nancy Murry, an evening student at Lynn, echoed her teacher’s sentiments.
“The dean would want us to move on and continue with our education,” she said.
The hits kept coming for Lynn as Hartwick’s colleague, Dr. Richard Bruno, was confirmed dead just one day later.
“With compassion, care and a deep commitment to helping others, Dr. Bruno became one of Lynn’s most respected and effective professors,” said Cynthia Patterson, vice president of Academic Affairs. “Dr. Bruno committed his life professionally and personally to the service of others and to promoting a more just, equitable and peaceful world.”
The final blow came on Valentine’s Day with the confirmation of Britney Gengel’s death, the last missing member of the Lynn community.
“While at Lynn, Britney triumphed academically and socially and was a true inspiration to the Lynn community and the community at large,” Ross said.
“She was a beautiful young woman who gave her life serving others.”
Each year during “J-term,” a semester in January, many students travel and study abroad. Bruno, Hartwick, Gengel, Crispinelli, Gianacaci, Hayes and others traveled to poverty stricken regions to work with the underprivileged.
“These people went over there to do good,” Lynn junior Katie Comerford said. “They could’ve gone to Las Vegas, they could’ve gone on a cruise but they went to go help people. It isn’t fair what happened to them but we have to go on and try to make a difference.”
Students are banding together in memory of their fallen friends.
“Now when you’re walking around campus, people say ‘hi’ that you don’t even know,” Comerford said.
“You can see that the campus is truly united. Everyone is going to sports games, to the nightly vigils and is there for each other.”
“We needed closure,” Nagy said. “This had been going on for too long.”
Ultimately, these men and women will not be remembered for how they died, but for how they lived.
A campus memorial service is planned but a date has not been scheduled.
Updated information can be found on Lynn’s Web site at www.lynn.edu.