McMutries focusing on orphans, not celebrity

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Diane McMutrie figures she must have knocked on the doors of 100 businesses three months ago when she was trying to raise money for the Haitian orphanage where her two daughters had been volunteering for nearly four years.

"All I heard was, 'I'll tell my manager you were here,' and they wouldn't call back," Mrs. McMutrie said.

Now that Jamie and Ali McMutrie's desperate and successful battle to get the orphans in their care out of Haiti after the Jan. 12 earthquake has grabbed national and international headlines, people can't seem to do enough.

"That's great," said Diane McMutrie. "But I have to wonder, where were they then?"

Despite calls from CNN, "Good Morning America," Katie Couric and Ellen DeGeneres, the McMutrie sisters and their family say they are still the same young women who chose to dedicate their lives to Haiti's children.

"We aren't changing anything about ourselves because people are watching us," said Jamie, 30.

Even though the BRESMA orphanage was damaged beyond repair, Jamie and Ali, 22, said the same determination that led them to believe they could make a difference in Haiti eventually will lead them back.

"Nobody knows right now what is going to happen there," Jamie said. "But we are definitely committed to the orphans in Haiti. I'm sure there are tons stuck there that were orphaned before the earthquake and there are a lot more new ones now."

The sisters sat at their parents' dining room table in Ben Avon for a wide-ranging interview. This their story:

The beginning

Jamie and Ali grew up in Ben Avon with their brother, Chad, 27, in a stable home with their parents, Diane and Sam, both 54. They said their family's Christian faith sent them down the path they have followed.

"Our parents showed us how to care for people in our community around us," Jamie said. "Just by being a friend to someone who needed one. The simple things."

The sisters also credit Ed Glover, president and founder of the Urban Impact Foundation of Pittsburgh, for teaching them to reach out.

In the 1980s, the McMutries attended a North Side church where Mr. Glover was pastor. Sam and Diane helped him establish his ministry, and he led the youth group the McMutrie children attended.

Jamie always loved children and was a group leader, he recalled.

When she came to him one day and told him she was thinking of working at an orphanage in Haiti, he remembers saying, "That doesn't surprise me at all, Jamie."

While Jamie said Mr. Glover "encouraged us to care for people other people didn't care about," Mr. Glover said it is the girls who inspire him.

"I'm not saying they're perfect. Nobody is," Mr. Glover said. "But the love of God has compelled them."

Suffering in Haiti

In 2002, Jamie, who always wanted to work with underprivileged children, was considering going to Africa to care for orphans. A customer at the restaurant where she was a waitress knew about her plans and told her about an Internet posting by a woman in Haiti who needed help at an orphanage.

Jamie contacted Margarette St. Fleur, the owner of the BRESMA orphanage, and learned she sought help running the place and facilitating adoptions. Jamie spent a week touring Haiti and was astonished by what she saw.

"When I got home, I thought, 'If I can do something, I should,'" she said. She went back to Haiti several times over the next few years.

Ali graduated from Avonworth High School in 2006 and decided to spend the following summer with her sister in Haiti. She, too, couldn't believe the poverty and the suffering.

She and Jamie, who is married to a traveling TV editor who keeps their home on the North Side, decided to stay at the orphanage full-time later that year. They draw no salaries. They eat what the children eat. Electricity and phone service are intermittent at best, and there is no hot water.

During the next 3 1/2 years, they arranged dozens of adoptions and cared for even more orphans. In one instance, Jamie spent weeks dropper-feeding a 5-week-old baby who had until then lived on nothing but sugar water. Herbie is now a happy, thriving toddler, said his adoptive mother, Molly Whaley of Iowa City.

During trips home, the sisters would try to raise money for the orphanage that cost about $12,000 a month to run.

"We tried so hard to do that and now people are just throwing money at us," Jamie marveled.

Up until Jan. 12, few people knew about the two sisters from Ben Avon. Then the world took notice.

The earthquake strikes

Jamie said she and her sister are alive because of a nasty germ.

The afternoon of Jan. 12, they needed to go grocery shopping. A nurse was supposed to stop by and look at Ali's throat, which had been bothering her for several days. The nurse was late. By the time she arrived and wrote Ali a prescription for an antibiotic, the sisters were behind schedule.

They were driving to the store when they felt a sudden jolt, as if their car had been rear-ended.

"We turned to look and as we turned around the building next to us fell down, just like that. In one second," Jamie said. "The cement road looked like an ocean with waves."

They hadn't decided whether to get out of the car and run when traffic started moving. They could only go in one direction and ended up at a friend's house more than a mile in the opposite direction from the orphanage.

The grocery where they were headed was destroyed.

They phoned the orphanage and learned two of BRESMA's three buildings were seriously damaged but that all the children and employees were OK. Three employees who were not on-site that day died, they said.

The sisters made their way back to the orphanage and used a stranger's BlackBerry to send an e-mail to Jamie's husband, Doug Heckman, begging for help, saying they were living outside and the water was contaminated. They warned the children might die if someone didn't get them out of the country quickly.

In no time, that e-mail made its way through the Internet's social networks and into the news media.

The next part of their story is well known: Gov. Ed Rendell and U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire, D-McCandless, helped to arrange a rescue airlift. Jamie and Ali insisted on taking all 54 orphans with them. Just before takeoff, a headcount showed one child was missing.

Jamie stayed behind. The plane carrying Ali and 53 orphans landed in Pittsburgh on Jan. 19. Jamie arrived the following day with 2-year-old Emma, who had fallen asleep at the U.S. embassy.

Most of the children have been placed with the families that were already working to adopt them, including 3-year-old Fredo, whom the McMutries' parents were expecting to welcome home as their son later this year.

Thirteen other children were taken to Holy Family Institute in Emsworth.

Such a happy ending would seem to be the logical place to end Jamie and Ali's story. But there is another chapter to be written.

What's next

Jamie and Ali agree that they have been unable to fully process what has happened. They have gone from being two sisters on their way to the grocery to quasi-celebrities.

Everything they've dedicated their lives to the last four years is gone. The children they have raised are safe, but they, too, are gone. Donations continue to pour into the Keystone Church of Hazelwood on behalf of an orphanage that is uninhabitable, but the sisters won't say how much they have collected. They don't want the money to stop and are setting up a non-profit foundation to administer it.

"When people say, 'What are you going to do?' We say, 'What will they let us do? What do they need us to do?'" Jamie said.

The sisters have heard it will take 10 years to rebuild Haiti. Neither is comfortable speculating about themselves when people still are being rescued from the rubble.

Every day, they said, they get a call from someone they know in Haiti asking for help.

"We can't even think about what's going to happen six months from now because right now they need us to help them survive this before we can help them rebuild," Jamie said.

People will forget about them sooner or later, so they want to take advantage of their 15 minutes to talk about Haiti's orphans.

"We want something good to come out of this," Jamie said. "We don't want to be superstars. But there's so much more to be done in Haiti."

Donations to BRESMA can be made online at or sent to: Keystone Church of Hazelwood, 161 Hazelwood Ave., Pittsburgh 15207. BRESMA must be written in the memo line.

Rachael Conway: or 724-772-4799. First Published January 30, 2010 5:00 AM


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