Virginia Montanez with Ali and Jamie McMutrie at their orphanage fundraiser in Nov. 2009.
Photo By Mike Woycheck
"If you ever need anything, just let me know. I’ll do everything I can for you, OK?”
I’m 35 years old, and I have never said anything even remotely close to that to anyone. Not ever. So I really can’t explain to you why I said those words to then 21-year-old Ali McMutrie, of Ben Avon, as I hugged her goodbye at Altar Bar in the Strip District, where I attended a fund-raiser last November for the BRESMA orphanage she and her sister Jamie, 30, managed in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
But I did. I hugged her, looked her right in the eyes, and I said that to her. She returned to her life in Haiti shortly thereafter. It was about six weeks later that Haiti was ravaged by a 7.0 earthquake that left BRESMA crumbling, forcing Jamie, Ali and their young charges to move to the orphanage yard with a limited supply of food and water.
It was late afternoon on January 13 that I received a phone call at my home. On the other end was Pittsburgh Magazine’s Jonathan Wander, a dear friend who first brought Jamie and Ali’s story to light when he wrote a feature that explored their lives in Haiti saving and caring for orphans.
I could hear a touch of panic in Jonathan’s voice as he explained to me the dire situation in Haiti and particularly at BRESMA. I listened as he relayed a hastily written e-mail the McMutrie family received from the girls, begging for help in evacuating the orphans to America before food and water ran out, before sickness set in and before inevitable panic-fed violence breached their walls. They were terrified for their children’s survival.
“If you ever need anything, just let me know. I’ll do everything I can for you, OK?” Payment had become due on that promise.
With Jonathan by my virtual side, we went to work to see if we could use social media, particularly the readership at my blog and my Twitter account, to spread Jamie and Ali’s need for help as far and wide as we could in as short a span of time as we could.
I knew in my head that, of course, calls to senators and other politicians would EVENTUALLY allow BRESMA to be reached, but I also knew that if we could make this story prominent, help would arrive so much faster—before the inescapable happened and before what could have been a triumphant story became a very tragic one.
My role behind the scenes of the BRESMA rescue was never about me, other than my extraordinary desire to live up to my words to Ali. It was about the children. Saving those children.
I began with a tweet that simply said, “I’m about to seek your help in finding some very rich and very powerful people. Be there for me.”
And Pittsburgh, as always, was there for me. The outpouring that resulted immediately following that tweet was, in a word, explosive. ‘Burghers began spreading the call for help to their friends, their co-workers, their readers, their readers’ readers, anyone who might know anyone and on and on. Some spent HOURS contacting our politicians. Some went to the famous, bombarding their Twitter accounts with pleas on behalf of Jamie and Ali. Some e-mailed me to offer help with clothing, supplies, money, foster care and access to supplies on the ground. “ANYTHING!”
It didn’t take long before their efforts began paying off. Author Neil Gaiman, actress Alyssa Milano, actor Channing Tatum, the powerful The Bloggess, the even-more-powerful Heather Armstrong, of Dooce fame, and Pittsburgh’s own iJustine heeded the call and began spreading the word to MILLIONS of people around the world with a few clicks of their keyboards.
CNN took note that Twitter had been besieged by talk of a place called BRESMA and sent a crew to reach the girls, thus shedding the first major media spotlight on Pittsburgh’s true heroes, Jamie and Ali McMutrie, who refused to leave Haiti without a single one of their children.
That media spotlight is what led to a push by our politicians that culminated in the orphans of BRESMA being rescued—many of them brought right here to Pittsburgh.
There’s so much to this story—so much to tell about how Pittsburgh’s people didn’t think twice when the call came to help their own through a devastating natural disaster. About how through the power of social media, Jamie and Ali received water and food when they most needed it. I simply don’t have the space here to explain it.
I just wanted to be sure that you know—that the world knows—that the BRESMA orphanage was saved because of the selflessness, bravery and fortitude of Jamie and Ali McMutrie and because of a viral fire of concern that was sparked right here in Pittsburgh by regular ‘Burghers with big hearts.
I learned a lot that terrifying week in January about the good and bad in people. I learned about true heroics. I learned that there are people whose nature is to be completely selfless even in the face of death. I learned that the next time I make an impulsive “I’ll do ANYTHING for you, OK?” promise to someone, I can rest assured that Pittsburgh has my back.
And that is one of the most comforting feelings I’ve ever known.