Ben Avon sisters serving in Haiti find no need too small
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The baby's name was Herbert and he was sure to die, just like his mother, who took her last breaths bringing him into the world.
The boy's father, poor and alone, brought the infant to the BRESMA orphanage in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, hoping someone would take pity on Herbert, who was small and sick after surviving his first five weeks on nothing but sugar water.
After telling Herbert's father, on several occasions, that there was no room at the orphanage, 30-year-old Ben Avon native Jamie McMutrie caved in.
"We told the dad we would take [Herbert] and love him until he dies," Jamie said in a telephone interview from Haiti. "I stayed up for what seemed like 24 hours a day for weeks feeding him through a dropper."
After receiving his share of cuddling and proper nutrition, Herbert survived. He is now a happy 2 1/2-year-old living the in the United States with his adopted family.
Herbert is one of nearly 500 children who have passed through BRESMA's doors since 2003. That's the year Jamie McMutrie started spending six months a year in Haiti. She has been living there year-round since 2006.
Ali McMutrie, 21, visited her sister at the orphanage out of curiosity that same year. What she saw overwhelmed her and she moved to Haiti to volunteer at BRESMA in 2007.
They planned a one-year stay.
"We quickly realized that the work here would never be done and have committed [ourselves] to staying here as long as we can be useful," Jamie McMutrie said.
At BRESMA, which is an acronym for Brebis de Saint-Michel de L'Attalaye, the sisters are many things. They are business managers, overseers of adoptions, nurses, nannies, playmates and mothers.
They live with the smallest and sickest of children in the infant house. There is also a toddler house and a big kids house for children 5 and older.
They draw no salaries. They eat what the children eat, and live as the children live. Electricity and phone service are intermittent at best, and there is no hot water.
But there's plenty of love, they said.
When a 9-year-old girl was failing to thrive in the older kids house, the women had her moved in with them.
The girl's mother, who had just remarried, gave her daughter up when her new husband refused to raise the child.
The sisters put the girl in school, let her help with the other children and most importantly, talked to her.
"Now she doesn't have to go cry in a bed by herself," Jamie said. "She can be around people she knows care for her."
Both women are Avonworth High School graduates who said they grew up in a Christian household where they learned the value of compassion.
"Our parents always showed us how to care for people in our community, just by being a friend to someone who needed one," Jamie McMutrie said.
As she got older, she wanted to do some type of social work with underprivileged children.
Ali McMutrie said she had planned to go to the University of Pittsburgh, major in elementary education and work for the Pittsburgh Public School System.
Jamie McMutrie, who is married and keeps a house on the North Side with her husband, Doug, learned about the orphanage from a customer while she worked as a waitress at a Denny's restaurant.
She had already been considering volunteering at an orphanage in Africa when the customer told her about a woman in Haiti who was looking for help running one.
She contacted the woman, who was founder of BRESMA, Margaret St. Fleur, and she arranged a trip.
After seeing the effects of poverty on Haiti's children, Ms. McMutrie said it wasn't hard to make up her mind to go back.
She and her sister had made mission trips to Mexico with their church, so they had seen poverty. But they hadn't seen anything remotely close to the destitution they saw in Haiti.
"Here, it's like kids are really on the brink of death," Jamie McMutrie said. "Here, 40 people can live in a house with no roof."
"When I got home, I thought, 'If I can do something, I should,' "she said.
Ali was still in high school when she first visited her sister in Haiti.
"The first time I came down, it was really to see what Jamie was doing," Ali McMutrie said. "I didn't really think it was for me."
Yet, the things she saw made an impression, and she gave up her goal of becoming a teacher to help the children.
She and her sister gave up other things as well.
"In the beginning, we felt like we were sacrificing material possessions," Jamie McMutrie said. "We didn't get to shop, go out, eat out, etc. as much as we would have liked to."
Soon, though, the price the sisters had to pay for staying in Haiti became steeper.
"There were a lot of people in our lives who didn't agree with our decision to leave our hometown to live in Haiti, so a lot of relationships suffered," Jamie said.
Her husband, however, knew she was going to spend a lot of time in Haiti before they got married. He travels extensively as a television editor. Jamie McMutrie manages three or four weeklong trips back home each year, and her husband also visits her at BRESMA. He is currently traveling in Indonesia.
So, while their arrangement is atypical, it works for them, she said.
The people who really love them are still around and they stay in Haiti with no regrets, they said.
"We are extremely happy here, because we love what we do and believe that we are where we are supposed to be right now," Jamie McMutrie said.
A life of challenges
Even though the sisters have become used to the difficulties of living in Haiti, life there is still full of challenges.
Several years ago, when kidnapping was on the rise, they had to be very careful when they left the orphanage, they said.
Electricity to the infant house recently was shut off because the building's landlord hadn't paid the bill. The result: The sisters and their charges were left without electricity for four days. That meant no running water until the power came back on.
In a recent trip to the city, Ali McMutrie said, she had to go to several stores to find enough baby food. When she got back to the orphanage, she found it was, once again, without power.
"Everyday things are a huge hassle," Ali said. "And it always seems everything happens at once."
Still, things tend to work out, she added.
The orphanage, which spends about $12,000 a month to run the three buildings, relies entirely on donations. Also, adoptive parents pay for their prospective child to live at BRESMA until the adoption is finalized, Jamie said. About half of the children are in the process of being adopted, she added.
Saying good-bye to a child who is leaving to be part of a loving home is one of the sisters' greatest joys, they said.
"We both feel we make the lives of the kids in our care just a little bit better while they wait to go to their adoptive families," Jamie McMutrie said. "Hopefully the love and affection that we show them while they are with us will help them throughout their lives."
First Published December 24, 2009 12:00 am