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Ben Avon sisters continue efforts to assist children, families in Haiti

| Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013, 5:42 p.m.
Ali (left) and Jamie McMutrie talk about their ordeal Wednesday January 27, 2010, in the lobby of the Omni William Penn Hotel Downtown. The Ben Avon sisters brought 54 orphans to Pittsburgh from earthquake-ravaged Haiti. James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Philip G. Pavely
Ali McMutrie carries Emma, the 54th orphaned child from Haiti, into Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh following the return of her sister Jamie Wednesday, January 20, 2010. The day before, Ali came back with 53 children from the BRESMA orphanage, but Jamie stayed behind when Emma couldn't be accounted for. Philip G. Pavely / Tribune-Review

January is a month of memories for two Ben Avon sisters thrust into harm's way when an earthquake caused major damage in and around Port-au-Prince, Haiti, three years ago.

Since the Jan. 12, 2010, natural disaster, Jamie McMutrie, 33, and her sister Ali McMutrie, 24, have spent much of their time providing basic services for Haitian families in need.

The sisters gained local and national attention then as the orphanage the McMutries worked in for years leading up to the earthquake was heavily damaged, forcing the pair to bring to the United States 54 children awaiting adoptions with help from then-Gov. Ed Rendell, UPMC officials and government and private individuals.

As the spotlights faded and an influx of support leveled off, the McMutries — who in 2011 created Haitian Families First — said their efforts continue despite a lack of funds to provide basic services to those in need.

“We live week to week,” Jamie McMutrie said, adding that her sister wires her enough money for a week of services and care for the families. “But we always make it every week. It's really stressful. We've cut back as much as we can.

“It used to be that we'd get money every three months, but now it's literally every week because we just don't know what we'll have.”

“Before the earthquake, we had one fundraiser a year and that helped us,” Ali McMutrie said.

“Now, it's beyond stressful. The people we help are not a number or a group of people who don't matter. If we weren't able to continue supporting them, it would be like watching your family members starve to death.”

Haitian Families First assists families by providing basic needs; infants formula, which is about 25 percent of the organization's budget; helping with medical expenses and other health-related costs; finding jobs; and by giving tuition assistance to school-aged children.

“I was stunned that they ever wanted to go back to Haiti, but as they told me, it's their home,” Haitian Families First board member Virginia Montanez said. “And you don't turn your back on your home just because things get tough. They are changing the culture in Haiti. They're changing it from a country where families give up children due to poverty, to a country where families have options and helping hands to allow them to stay a family. They're doing it one family at a time, but it will ripple and grow.”

The McMutries say they provide services the Haitian government does not.

“We're not trying to buy people new houses in the ritzy part of town or put all of these huge amounts of money into people's hands that can't handle that, have never had it or that might put them in danger,” Ali McMutrie said. “We just help them eat, have clean water and enough of it, and get education.”

Many of the families serviced by the McMutries live in cardboard boxes or small huts.

“It sounds like a joke, but it's really not,” Jamie McMutrie said. “It's sometimes a few cardboard boxes put together with a little bit of tin put on top so it doesn't get too wet.

“But to them it's home, and a home that is an 8-by-10 box, but it's somewhere they feel safe.”

While her sister has remained in Pittsburgh for the last year, Jamie McMutrie, who first left for Haiti in 2002, has spent much of the last three years in Haiti, working with families to regain their lives before the earthquake.

“Even from before the quake, the work Ali and I do hasn't changed much because people were very poor before the quake,” she said. “People were homeless then, too.”

Tent cities and rubble are the norm in the poor island country's capital city, Jamie McMutrie said.

“There's a lot of talks,” she said. “Supposedly they're supposed to start rebuilding.”

Compounding the government's slow rebuilding process are talks of famine as flooding last year destroyed many of the crops, she said.

“People are hungry. They're starving,” Jamie McMutrie said. “They can't feed their kids. And then they see Ali walking around with a watch on and what would stop them from taking it? And it's not because they're horrible, it's because they're hungry.”

Last year, the women said their organization helped 80 children — with all but one remaining with their birth family. More families were helped through services and education, they said.

To help support their mission, Ali McMutrie has remained in Pittsburgh to build a base for the fledgling nonprofit.

“I know that in my lifetime, I'm not going to see Haiti do a (180-degree turn) and become this huge tourist island,” she said. “I wish. I know that at least 80 children would either be separated from their family or dead if it weren't for the work we're doing.”

While larger support and financial donations are the exception, not the rule, what has kept the sisters working toward their goal are smaller donations — sometimes $10 or $20 “from very nice people around Pittsburgh,” Jamie McMutrie said.

“We're not this huge organization that you give to and you have no idea what's going on,” Ali McMutrie said. “And that's something Pittsbughers can latch onto.

“Pittsburgh is our hub. They saved us once. But we really do need to see a step up in support if we're going to keep existing.”

Bobby Cherry is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-324-1408 or

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