There are two kinds of people in the world: those who when they see a need, talk about doing something to satisfy it, and those who roll up their sleeves and actually get to work. Pittsburgh sisters Jamie and Ali McMutrie are of the latter stock.
For nearly 14 years, the McMutries, who hail from Ben Avon, have been working in Haiti to better the lives of the people living there. Jamie, 33, had always wanted to work with children, and in 2002, she took the opportunity to go to Haiti and fell in love with the place and the children. In 2006, sister Ali, 25, joined her older sister.
“I was 15 the first time I visited Haiti, and it completely changed my life. I knew after I graduated from high school I was going to Haiti,” said Ali. “It was unlike anything I’d ever seen. My family was always helping people, taking in kids, but even though the poverty was so much worse than anything I’d ever experienced, these kids were like kids here. I just connected with them.”
Ali admits it was difficult returning to Avonworth High School to finish her education when her heart was in Haiti. “I had to learn to turn off my Haiti obsession at times to avoid running off my friends,” Ali said with a laugh.
True to her word, after graduation, she joined Jamie in Haiti. For eight years, the pair ran an orphanage in Port-au-Prince. Circumstances are often so dire in Haiti that something like a parent’s loss of a job results in a parent making a heartbreaking decision of giving up a child for placement in an orphanage.
In 2010, the McMutries’ world and all of Haiti’s was turned upside down, almost literally. On January 12, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake rocked the Island of Hispaniola, where Haiti lies on the western end and the Dominican Republic to the east.
The McMutries and the plight of the 154 orphans in their care gained nationwide attention. The orphanage was destroyed. They cared for the children while living in the driveway. Jamie and Ali worked tirelessly to evacuate the children, all of whom were brought to Pittsburgh with the aid of federal, state, and local government officials and then placed with their adoptive families.
While the sisters were grateful that their charges found loving homes, and felt fulfilled working in the orphanage, they knew that they wanted to do more for the Haitian people. Shortly after the earthquake, Jamie and Ali formed their own nonprofit, Haitian Families First. Their mission is to address the issues that tear families apart so that no parent is forced to give up a child due to poverty.
Fundraising and Growing Supporters
Ali spends more time in the United States now. “A year ago, we realized the organization needed one of us to focus on fundraising and growing supporters,” said Ali. The nonprofit holds several small fundraising events a year and could use volunteers here stateside. “Some people have told us that at their holiday party instead of a gift exchange they will make a donation to Haitian Families First,” Ali said. “When people learn about how they can make a difference, they are eager to help.”
Haitian Families First, through donations, has established three programs to combat the factors that devastate the country. The Nutrition Program provides baby formula to newborns. Unfortunately, the maternal mortality rate is quite high in Haiti, with mothers dying during childbirth. Without breast milk or formula, the newborns’ lives are in jeopardy. Haitian Families First provides counseling and formula, enabling fathers to raise their children.
The Health & Wellness Program provides prenatal care to pregnant women and lactating mothers as well as their newborns. In addition, it advocates for sick children and has established relationships with physicians, clinics, and hospitals in Port-au-Prince.
The Education Program builds on the foundation laid by the Nutrition and Health & Wellness Programs by helping families to find appropriate schooling for children and offsetting the tuition, because Haiti does not have a public education system.
“The changes we are able to make with the small resources we have are huge. Orphanages are more costly to run. With one-tenth of the money required to care for a child in an orphanage, we can support an entire family,” Ali said.
McMutries Sisters Honored
The McMutries’ efforts have not gone unnoticed. In April 2013, they were honored with the 2012 Norman Borlaug Humanitarian Award, which is presented by MedAssets, at an awards ceremony in Las Vegas.
“Once you visit Haiti,” Ali said, “you have either one of two reactions: you never want to go back or you have to go back.”
Pittsburgh is proud to claim the McMutrie sisters and has taken their cause to heart. If you would like to help the McMutries help the families in Haiti, visit their website.
Haitian Families First has recently been accepted as part of the United Way, and donors can give to HFF through the United Way using the code 11179793.