NORTHBOROUGH, Mass. — When Northborough resident and St. John's High School senior Forrest Owen flew into Haiti last week, he couldn't believe what he saw.
The tent city where thousands of refugees made their homes stretched as far as he could see. "It had to have covered at least a couple acres of land," Owen said. "Maybe 10 acres."
Owen joined seven other St. John's students and two faculty members on the "Global Encounter" service immersion program offered by the school. From Feb. 16 to 23, they worked to pave a road leading to the Be Like Brit Orphanage in the town of Grand Goave.
"I've always wanted to go down to Haiti," Owen said. "Ever since the earthquake."
Built in January, the orphanage was named for Britney Gengel, a 19-year-old sophomore at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., who was killed by the earthquake that hit Haiti three years ago while doing charity work there. Her parents, who opened the orphanage, also founded the Be Like Brit nonprofit organization to serve the people of Haiti.
Since the orphanage was so new, Owen said conditions surrounding the building left much to be desired. "During the rainy season, you wouldn't be able to drive up" the road," he said. The students helped pave a "pretty big section," and also finished a fence around the orphanage.
"A lot of the kids who are staying there right now were orphaned by the earthquake," Owen said. Their numbers are growing. When he arrived, Owen said there were 11 children at the orphanage. By the time he left, there were 15.
The students also met locals in Grand Goave. They discovered one family who slept on concrete blocks in a house that only had a tarp for a roof. "That really hit me," Owen said. "Wow, I'm sitting here complaining about my feet hanging off my bed." Though they could not provide the family with mattresses, the students ended up building the family wooden beds, which Owen said were a bit more comfortable.
Throughout the whole trip, Owen said he got by on nothing more than a couple changes of clothes, some food and a book. "One of the biggest things that really hit me was that I've never been so content with having so little stuff," Owen said.
He already hopes to go back someday. Despite Haiti's reputation for being dangerous, Owen said the people are quite friendly and welcoming when approached.
"As soon as you say hi to them, they have the biggest smile in the world," he said. "Then they talk to you like they've known you for years."
To see more pictures from the trip, check out the Be Like Brit Facebook page.