Four years after Jamie and Ali McMutrie flew 54 orphans out of an earthquake-flattened Haiti into the international spotlight, those events are still outshining the sisters' current mission to keep Haitian families together.
The harrowing 2010 evacuation, which took cooperation from the U.S. State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and former Gov. Ed Rendell, provided the foundation upon which their charity, Haitian Families First, was built. However, it also made them famous for taking children out of Haiti to new families instead of helping the country's parents to help themselves.
Once news of the post-earthquake rescue spread, the McMutries became overnight celebrities. After making the rounds on CNN, "Good Morning America" and "The Ellen Degeneres Show," the duo drummed up enough attention to raise $180,000 toward their efforts to bring aid to orphans. After teams of lawyers volunteered to guide them through the nonprofit 501(c)3 process pro bono, Haitian Families First was established, and the McMutries were ready to hit the ground running.
The idea behind Haitian Families First (haitianfamiliesfirst.org), which achieved official nonprofit status in 2010, is to help families in moments of crisis with medical, nutritional and educational interventions designed to keep children with parents and close relatives, Ali McMutrie explained during a discussion with her sister in their Ben Avon home last week.
"We ask [families] what is it that has got you to this point? Did you lose your job? Did someone in the family get sick? Any variation of things -- and they are things that happen to people everywhere; it's not just Haiti. The difference there is the social services to provide options for them don't really exist or are not as strong as they need to be," she said.
Although Jamie McMutrie, 34, had been volunteering at the Port-Au-Prince Orphanage Bresma since she arrived in Haiti in 2002, a plan to keep Haitian children with their parents had been in the back of her mind practically from the start.
"When I moved there, after about five days I realized that the children living in the orphanage had parents and weren't orphans in the sense that we in the United States think. They were in the orphanage because their parents couldn't afford to take care of them."
Once Ali, 26, moved to Haiti after high school graduation in 2006, they both spent their time at Bresma caring for the children but also letting parents know adoption wasn't their only recourse.
"I kept volunteering at the orphanage until the earthquake, but throughout all of that time kept helping families in other ways so that they could keep their children," said Jamie.
With a pool of startup funds, a wave of international goodwill and a reputation among Haitians, building Haitian Families First into a world-class nonprofit seemed like it should fall into place smoothly. With locations set up in Port-au-Prince, Saint-Marc, Fort Jacques and Saut-d'Eau, the sisters opened up for business ready to make an immediate impact.
What they got, instead, was an uphill climb stacked with learning curves to navigate and lessons to live by in and out of Haiti.
"It's an ordeal. It takes a lot of different people [to help]" said Ali.
One of the first rules the McMutries would learn is that fundraising is an ongoing process in the nonprofit world.
Working off an annual operating budget of around $100,000, the sisters went through the donations raised after the earthquake in about a year and a half. Once those funds dried up, the sisters -- who were both still living in Haiti -- realized they couldn't rely on a team of seven Pittsburgh volunteers to do the heavy lifting when it comes to supporting the company financially.
"In 2012, we realized one of us needed to come back to get the business side under control and Ali decided that ... well, we flipped a coin," said Jamie, and both sisters laughed.
For Ali, who came into the situation with no social service or development background to speak of, the first order of business was to boost fundraising by setting up meetings, doing presentations and finding any way she could to spread the word about Haitian Families First.
"A lot of people around Pittsburgh who may know of our work and our story don't really know what it is we're doing now. So a big part of what I find myself doing is going out and building that awareness."
Back in Port-au-Prince, Jamie was learning that providing medical, educational and nutritional interventions for parents ready to surrender their rights is often more complicated than just a single infusion of funds directed at an isolated problem.
A parent who was considering placing a child up for adoption because he or she can't afford school might need funds for tuition. But without clothing, books or food, the child won't make it to the classroom regardless of financial assistance.
Parents thinking of giving up sick children for adoption because orphanages pay for emergency care needed more than funds for a doctor's visit. They needed enough for diagnostic tests, medication and any follow-up care that might be needed to keep the child alive.
For HIV-infected mothers, single fathers and grandparents raising malnourished infants -- groups Jamie said are the most often seen at the charity -- both infant formula and medical care were immediate needs.
The two-year crash course in nonprofit operation hasn't been easy, but it has earned the sisters several hard-fought victories.
Ali has managed to drum up enough support through fundraising mixers to keep a budget that's a little under $100,000 per year flowing and to pay seven Haitian staff members -- all mothers who used the program to keep custody of their children.
Jamie said she has established collaborations with hospital systems willing to send desperate parents to the charity for aid, has helped to steer some clients toward jobs and has learned that solving problems doesn't necessarily equal cutting a check.
"At least 10 times a week we meet with a family and figure things out without having to spend one dollar. We just meet with them and say, you're freaking out because your kid is sick; let's figure this out. And we find out they can go to a free clinic because the medical needs they have are good for that clinic," said Jamie.
"It's counseling," interjected Ali.
And while the sisters are still seeking steady sponsorships to cover infant formula, medical supplies and expensive shipping costs to Haiti, they are optimistic that they eventually can help turn the tide in a country where 80 percent of 30,000 orphans have at least one living parent. They provide comprehensive aid to around 100 families a year.
"I think we're most excited about our work because we see an end in sight," said Ali. "It's a huge, huge job, and there is so much to do and we'll be working on it our whole lives, but we don't see it the same way as an orphanage, which is just a never-ending cycle. If we perpetuate that as a good option, there's always going to be children coming in the doors. Even as they get older, leave or become adopted, there will always be more children until Haitians are in a position to take care of their own children."
If reuniting Haitian families means a great deal to the McMutries, it means the world to the families impacted, said Jamie.
"We're excited because Haitians are on our side," she said. "They love their kids, they want their kids and they care about their kids. They just need some help to get to a point where they can take care of them."
Deborah M. Todd: email@example.com or 412-263-1652.