When Jamie and Ali McMutrie returned to their alma mater last week for a student assembly held in their honor, they found Avonworth High School pretty much the way they remembered it.
The lives of the two sisters from Ben Avon, however, couldn't be more different than it was the last time they wandered the school's halls.
The sisters agreed they had no idea, back in the day, that they would dedicate their lives to orphans in Haiti, live through an earthquake and become international heroes by refusing to flee that devastated country without the children they were helping to care for.
It is because of the McMutries' efforts to save the children at the damaged BRESMA orphanage after the Jan. 12 earthquake that Avonworth officials announced during the assembly last Thursday that the district and community have established the Jamie and Ali McMutrie Spirit of Giving Award.
Starting in June, an annual monetary award will be given to an Avonworth senior who displays exemplary humanitarianism and selflessness, high school principal Ken Lockette told the crowd of about 650 students.
Superintendent Valerie McDonald told the students the difference the McMutrie sisters have made in the lives of needy children demonstrates the importance of taking what you learn and hear growing up and applying it to the world.
"What they've done is well beyond anything we can teach in any classroom or on any sports field," she said.
Student council President Lauren Harpst, 18, said she hoped students take notice of what the McMutrie sisters have done.
"It's an honor that somebody from such a small school district as Avonworth has gone out and done something so great," she said. "I think it should give students a sense that there is a whole world out there."
Jamie graduated from Avonworth High School in 1998, and Ali did so in 2006. They had been living in Haiti caring for orphans when a Jan. 12 earthquake destroyed Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince.
The orphanage where they worked was damaged, and the sisters and children were forced to live in an outside courtyard.
Desperate text messages got through to family and friends in the United States, and within a day of the earthquake, state officials and Gov. Ed Rendell were working to get the sisters and their young charges out of Haiti.
In the end, the sisters brought 54 BRESMA orphans to Pittsburgh. A majority of the children were in the process of being adopted. About a dozen others remain at Holy Family Institute in Emsworth.
During the assembly, Jack Connors, a former Avonworth school board member who spearheaded the effort to create the award in the sisters' names, told Jamie and Ali they are an inspiration.
"The two of you have had an impact far beyond Avonworth, and we rejoice that you are our neighbors and graduates of our school," he said. "Thank you for awakening our hearts and, even more, for stirring our souls."
Mr. Connors said he hoped to launch the scholarship with a $10,000 fund, now being garnered, but the amount of the annual award has not been determined. Plans are to begin awarding the scholarship in June.
Both sisters said they will return to Haiti. They have established a nonprofit agency, Haitian Orphan Rescue, and their goal is to build a new facility in Haiti for orphans.
There is another thing they want to do that they weren't able to while volunteering at BRESMA, which was run by someone else.
"We also want to help families stay together," Jamie McMutrie said.
Rachael Conway: firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-772-4799. First Published March 25, 2010 10:00 AM