Catching Up With Ali McMutrie

PittGirl catches up with 2011 Pittsburgher of the Year Ali McMutrie.

Photo by Jonathan Wander

"I remember the doors to the plane closing after Jamie jumped off. I lost it. I pounded and pounded on the door begging them open it back up. In that moment, I thought I would never see Jamie again. I fell to the floor of the plane and I just lost it." — Ali McMutrie

Those that survive the great wars and disasters of Earth — the tsunamis, the terrorism, the earthquakes — might do so without a single visible scar or any outward manifestation of the great adversity they overcame to be standing there alive in that moment.

But they are left with scars and damage all the same in the form of ragged psyches, raw emotions, frazzled nerves and a desperation to have things return to the way they were "before."

This holds true for Ali McMutrie. She turned 22 that day she and her older sister Jamie boarded a US military plane in earthquake-ravaged Haiti along with dozens of Haitian orphans in their care, bound for Pittsburgh where safety, medical care and eventual forever families waited.

She was just 22 when she watched Jamie, who had realized a child had been left behind, hop off the plane that was to be her salvation and back into the terror and deathly chaos that was Port au Prince, Haiti.

She was just 21 when the earthquake struck and she spent a week with her sister keeping scared, hungry orphans alive despite no running water, no electricity, dwindling food supplies, an increasingly unstable environment and no safe shelter.

She was just 21 when she thought she was going to die.

It has been two and a half years since the Haitian earthquake, but Jamie and Ali McMutrie never gave up on Haiti. They continue to operate their own nonprofit in Haiti where they are providing the necessary care to Haitian children and their families in an effort to allow families to stay together. Whereas before they were helping orphans, now they are working to prevent children from becoming orphans due to issues such as lack of income, lack of child care, or lack of health care.

It seemed a good time for Pittsburgh to revisit the girls, to learn a bit more about their experiences during the earthquake, what they're doing in Haiti now, and what's next for the 2011 Pittsburghers of the Year.

This is Ali McMutrie.

Your life was a complete whirlwind of activity immediately following the earthquake, between helping the orphans who were still waiting for their adoptions to be finalized to media appearances and more. Did you ever properly digest and go through the emotions you needed to go through to heal from the experience?
No, I never did back then.  We went from being afraid we were all going to die to being safe and celebrated, to trying to get back to work in such a short time — we’d been there since 2002.  It was also difficult to deal with because as much as people here were willing to help, I felt like nobody understood other than my sister and others who were there and experienced it all.  I think it was so overwhelming but I felt that I should be able to handle it.  People definitely mentioned to me that we both should seek some counseling for what we had been through and what we had seen, but it wasn't a priority — Haiti was.

Do you think you were intentionally avoiding facing the emotional impact of the crisis or was it simply a matter of you not realizing why you needed to face it?
It was certainly not intentional.  I had dealt with a lot of difficult things in my life in Haiti over the 8 years we had been working there already and I didn't recognize the drastic nature of what had happened to us.  I think I thought, “Well, this is just another thing I have to take as it comes and move on, push forward." But I was wrong. Obviously the earthquake itself — and the weeks that followed — was on a whole new level [compared to] anything we had ever experienced.

How did you and Jamie deal with the earthquake and aftermath differently from each other or did you both go through the same post-crisis emotions and stages?
This is all hindsight now. In most ways I don't remember the first several months after the quake. Jamie on the other hand worked her butt off. She went to bed at 2 or 3 a.m. and was up by 5 a.m. She was always on the phone or on the computer, making connections, setting up meetings — both in Pittsburgh and in Haiti.  She would delegate and I would do what she said, but I was just going through the motions. I remember a day in May of that year where I felt like I woke up and was back in the real world. It is weird to be able to go back to that specific day and remember a feeling of waking up, when nothing significant caused that feeling. I guess it was just my time. I was ready to stop acting like everything was okay.  

You've been back in Pittsburgh for a while now. Why did you come back and how have you changed since you've been here?
After "waking up" in May of 2010, I went through a lot, but I still never took the steps I needed to take to properly deal with my trauma. I realized I wasn't being effective there because I was not well myself, and the hardest decision I've made so far in my life was getting on the plane to come back here without a return ticket to Haiti, or even a date in mind. I have received help here, and it took a while but I am back to the point where I feel like myself again and feel like I have the tools I need to move forward, recognizing that the earthquake and everything that went along with it will always affect me, but that it doesn't have to hold me back or stop me from being the person I want to be both for myself in my own life, and for my work and life in Haiti.

So you see yourself going back to Haiti to work again?
This question actually makes me laugh. Absolutely!  Yes, yes and yes. Now it is just a matter of accomplishing the things I need to while here in the States, which includes rebranding, fund raising and events, speaking engagements, etc. before I travel back and rejoin Jamie in our work of keeping families together. I won't lie. I had to ask myself the question, "Is that where I want to be?" and I had to work through why I was doubting myself, but at the end of the day there is not a question in my mind.  As long as I can be effective there, as long as I feel I am making a difference in even just one person's life, I will be there.

In what ways are you different now than you were prior to the earthquake? Wiser? Smarter? More fragile? Stronger?
The biggest thing I experienced was loss. Loss of people who didn't survive, and loss of a lot of those who did (the kids), loss of my old life, loss of the future that I always planned that I would have had if it weren't for the earthquake. So I don't know what that makes me, but it makes me very, very different. I am less afraid. I used to be afraid of dying, but after being certain I was going to, I realize I just have to live while I can. I am stronger now because of what I have gone through the last few months. I had to reach a point where I was almost forced to get help, and that is humbling and I think makes me a stronger person. I am not different at my core at all though.  Jamie and I have always said there is only one life, and I want to live it to its fullest and help everyone I can to be able to do the same, especially those who wouldn't have that chance otherwise.

What images from the earthquake do you have a hard time shaking? Are there certain pictures, moments or words that still pop into your head without warning?
I hate thunder now because it sometimes feels like the earth is shaking. Loud noises scare me now more than ever before. I often think about all the kids and how scared they must get sometimes, when I am a 24-year-old adult and I am still affected so much. When I think about it, I remember the first couple of minutes after and picturing the house crushing all the kids, because that’s what we were seeing all around us from our car. It makes me feel sick and I try not to think about it very often.

What scares you now?
I am afraid that we won't be able to continue our work and that the organization will go under. I am afraid that we won’t have the funds or the connections that we need to meet the needs. We do so many different things to help families and to think that we might not be able to help a parent find a way to feed their baby or to send their children to school or to get the medical care that could save their child’s life, that’s devastating.

I am not afraid of this for myself. I know I will be okay, but I can't say the same for the people who we work with. Jamie is having to turn away people in Haiti because the funding we received right after the earthquake is running out and that keeps both of us up at night. We are very aware that we cannot help everyone, but we live and work with amazing people in one of the poorest countries in the world. We can’t tell them that their child doesn’t have a right to life because our organization might not have the support it needs to survive.

If you could sit Pittsburghers down in one room and tell them anything you wished, what would you want to tell them? What's the thing you wished we all knew?  
I want people to know that we are still in Haiti, and to understand why. I want them to know that after working in an orphanage for years, we learned so much about orphans, families, the whole process, and that our new vision is truly what the children of Haiti need. “Orphan” in Haiti doesn’t necessarily mean a child without parents. It usually means a child whose parents are without options, like education, a job, money or who have lost options due to the earthquake.

It’s like the economic state in this country. Some parents here are now unable to really care for their kids. If they’re lucky, they have friends, extended family or social services to turn to. But in Haiti, parents facing tough times usually don’t have a safety net. Their only option is to give up their child.

We are not willing to accept that. We know that if we can help parents get back on their feet, by providing formula, job training, child care, even instructions on how to give and take medication, they can provide better care for their child. And if we can do that with a few families every week, eventually, this holistic idea will become the norm. That’s what, we think, will sustain Haiti.  

If you're interested in helping Jamie and Ali and Haitian Families First, you can visit to learn more about their upcoming events including Rock & Roll Karaoke Costume Party on Saturday, October 20 and the 5th Annual Ti Kanaval celebration taking place from November 3 to November 10.  

They also have three sponsorship programs that allow you to donate directly to specific programs such as the baby formula program or the educational program at HFF.

Jamie's story will appear next week.

Categories: PittGirl