Catching Up With Jamie McMutrie

The other half of our 2011 Pittsburgher of the Year duo opens up about life in Haiti today.


Jamie McMutrie is the older of the McMutrie sisters. She's the brunette one. The tough as nails one. The seemingly emotionless one. While her younger sister Ali wears her heart on her sleeve and feels things deeply and rawly, Jamie has a wall of stone guarding her heart, and getting past that wall is no easy task. Ask her about the earthquake that stranded she and Ali in Haiti in 2010 while caring for dozens of orphans, and she'll answer you matter-of-factly. This is what happened. This is who died. This is the carnage I saw. This is what I did about it.

Lurking behind that wall are the real stories. Stories of Jamie tricking a plane full of people, including then Governor Ed Rendell, so that she could leap back onto the tarmac of the Port au Prince airport to find a child left behind. Stories of literally breathing life back into sick children. Stories of horrific dreams that haunt her nightly.

And stories she still won't share and questions she still won't answer. These are the questions she'll answer for now and these are the stories she'll share. The others stay safely tucked behind the wall.

How have you been affected emotionally and psychologically since the earthquake?
I’m more emotionless than I used to be. And I care less about what people think of me. It made me realize life is short, so it made me care less about little things like that. And I think about the quake all the time. Like when people are walking by on the floor. The vibration. Or when I’m in a bathroom and the cinderblocks look like they’re going to fall on me. You know that feeling when you’re on a roller coaster, and you’re going down a hill? That feeling in your stomach? I feel that probably 40 times a day. Because that’s what it felt like. When I feel those things, it doesn’t stop me from doing what I’m doing, but it registers with me. I don’t dream about it a lot, unless something happens in the middle of the night, like one of the mini-earthquakes we have all the time in Haiti. But I dream about people dying a lot more than I used to. People falling off cliffs, car accidents, all different ways. Everyone I care about dies all the time in my dreams. And me. I dream about myself dying. Before the earthquake, I never used to have those dreams.

What was going through your mind when you made the decision to jump off the plane in Haiti to find Emma who had been accidentally left behind?
It wasn’t a decision. It wasn’t a question. It was just, “Emma’s not here!” I never thought about “should I or shouldn’t I” get off that plane. The only thing I was thinking about was trying to trick everyone else into thinking I wasn’t getting off the plane. I would never have left her. Not in a million years. Even if they were shooting at me, I wouldn’t have left. I mean, who would leave their kid?

You recently saved the life of Ylionise, a little girl who needed heart surgery, by arranging to bring her to Florida for that surgery. What was the scariest moment of that ordeal?
When I decided to take responsibility for it. Because then I felt like it would be my fault if she died. When I told her mom yes, that I would make sure everything would be okay. After that, there was a time when it was three weeks before she could travel. I was supposed to be away from the house for the weekend, but I was running late. Her oxygen levels dropped and she stopped breathing. I had to resuscitate her. If I had already left, she would have died.

Ali hasn’t been in Haiti with you for a bit of a time as she works through some of her own issues in the aftermath of the quake. What do you miss most about her being in Haiti with you?
Everything. She’s my best friend. At Haitian Families First we’re helping 40 families, about 100 children, with things that require financial help. That includes formula, food, medicine, supplies, education needs. But there are a lot more families that we check on, direct them to resources, or they come to us if they have an emergency. So when Ali’s not with me I do 10 people’s jobs, when I used to just do 5. Plus she’s a great driver.  

What’s an average day like for you in Haiti?
There’s a lot of driving. We work with two hospitals and a clinic, so I’ll visit each of those at least three days a week. Then every day I visit with our families, especially the ones with kids who are sick or really young. I have a plan every day, but it never works out that way. We have four zones, four regions, with families. So I have plans to get to them spaced out during the week. But usually every day someone calls because of some emergency. But by the time the week is done we’ve made it to all of them.

Why was it important to you that you moved away from the orphanage sector and became more of a turnkey family-stabilizing social services organization?
When I first went to Haiti I thought all orphans were orphans in the way we think of them in America—kids without parents. But in most cases the kids who wind up in orphanages go there because their families can’t afford to keep them. The truth is, helping families stay together is what Ali and I have always done. This isn’t new for us. It’s just new to the public. The 100 kids we work with right now, they were all going to be placed in orphanages. Out of all of them, there’s only one that’s living with me right now, that I couldn’t find another solution for. All the rest of them are with their families, where they belong, being loved. If we weren’t able to step in to help those families afford to stay together then those kids go to orphanages and those families get torn apart. And that tears me apart. When you see it happen, and you know it could be prevented with just a small amount of financial support, it tears you apart. Our budget is really small. When you see the kids who get to stay with their family, and have medical care, and go to school, and they’re loved…it’s fantastic. But it’s frustrating at the same time because we could help so many more if only we had more support.

What would people be surprised to know about your life in Haiti?
That I love it. That Haiti's my home. That I’m really happy about my work because I get to do something I love. No matter how exhausted I am, I never feel dread about doing what I have to do that day. Also, that I have real friends. I work long hours, and it’s hard and it’s frustrating sometimes. But it’s not just work. I hang out with people, we have fun. I would raise my kids there.

What makes Haitian Families First different?
We are 100 percent involved in these people’s lives, the people we help. It is not a job for us. My phone is on 24 hours a day, and our families know that. And when Ali and I are up in Pittsburgh at the same time, which is basically once a year, those families have the phone numbers of my friends down there who will help them with what they need. The people we work with are family to us and we treat them that way. Also, it’s the connection we have with our supporters, especially in Pittsburgh. They feel connected to us because this is our hometown, but they tell us they also feel a bond the families and kids we work with. And we’re using social media to keep the communication and connections going. We chat with people on Twitter, post pictures on Instagram, and pictures and stories on Facebook. Seeing our everyday experiences, people can really appreciate that any small donation—the price of your morning coffee, an extra can of formula—truly makes a difference.

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