Love and Haiti
Pittsburgh sisters Jamie and Ali McMutrie are devoting their lives to saving the lives of orphans at their BRESMA orphanage in Haiti.
When Lawrenceville photographer Laura Petrilla visited her friends Jamie and Ali McMutrie at the Brebis de Saint-Michel de L’Attalaye (BRESMA) orphanage in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, last May, the owner and director of the orphanage, Margarette Saint Fleur, asked her if she had ever been to her homeland before. "No, this is my first time," Petrilla said. "Welcome to Hell" was Saint Fleur’s starkly casual response.
But in the midst of this "hell"-the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, an island battered by political upheavals, violence and a sequence of ferocious hurricanes-you will find a sanctuary for Haiti’s youngest, most vulnerable citizens: its orphaned children. To meet the two young women who devote their lives to these children, to hear from the parents who have adopted children from the orphanage, it is difficult to avoid the cliché of calling BRESMA a touch of heaven, and Jamie and Ali McMutrie angels for what they do.
Ben Avon natives Jamie, 29, and Ali, 20, are sisters. They live most of the year at the orphanage, which is divided into three houses-the "Big Kids’ House" for ages 4 and older, the "Baby House" for toddlers, and "Jamie and Ali’s House" for the babies and children who are the most frail. They run the day-to-day operations of the orphanage, and they do so without pay, strictly as volunteers, eating what the children eat, surviving, as the orphanage does, on donations and the fees for child care paid by adoptive parents. "It’s a Third World country," Jamie says of Haiti. "But I expect First World results." Theirs is a story of tireless dedication, mountain rescues, battling bureaucracy, crying with joy over a baby’s first temper tantrum, high expectations, higher standards and, most of all, happy endings.
HOW DOES A NICE PITTSBURGH GIRL WIND UP IN A PLACE LIKE THIS?
Jamie McMutrie always has found her greatest joy in children, caring for them, nurturing the kids who needed it most. While at Avonworth High School she worked and volunteered at an after-school day-care center and later, after graduating, ran a program on the North Side for teenage mothers. But when she was young, after hearing stories that Pittsburgh used to have orphanages, she became fascinated and knew, early on, that she wanted to work in an orphanage one day. While attending Toccoa Falls College and Community College of Allegheny County for social work, McMutrie began researching orphanages online, putting out feelers for those who needed help.
But it was a chance encounter while waitressing part-time at the Monroeville Denny’s that led her to Haiti. She struck up a conversation with a customer, sharing her dream to work in an orphanage. The customer had heard about a need for help in Haiti and a woman, Margarette, trying to start an orphanage there.
In December 2002, McMutrie flew to Haiti to meet Margarette Saint Fleur. "The first trip was eye-opening," McMutrie says. "A guy heard what we were doing and told us about three kids who needed help. We drove three hours, then walked up a mountain for another three hours and found these kids who were alone in a house, no parents at home, severely malnourished, near death."
McMutrie and Saint Fleur waited for the mother, Miracia, to return. She was gone each day, working from dawn to dusk carrying water to people’s houses. She willingly let McMutrie and Saint Fleur take the children-to save them.
There was no orphanage home yet, so the children, ages 8, 6 and 3, lived in Saint Fleur’s house. "That’s what made me realize-I can’t leave here now that I know what these kids are going through alone, just lying there, with nothing. I had never seen anyone in that condition before," says McMutrie. The area was called Cabaret, a deceptively glamorous name for a decidedly squalid place.
The children had no father. "The dad was abusive and left for another woman. Usually that’s how we get orphans, the fathers leave," says McMutrie. "Sometimes the parents die or are too sick. But usually it’s because the fathers leave and want nothing to do with the kids anymore."
A sad story. With a happy ending. Those three children-ill, starving, alone for hours each day, are now 14, 11 and 9, thriving as part of a loving family in South Dakota. There is a growing list of more than 450 other happy endings, all part of Jamie and Ali McMutrie’s 100 percent adoption-success rate.
A SENSE OF BELONGING
Jamie McMutrie’s first trip to Haiti lasted four days, and she was amazed at how attached she became. "Within 12 hours I knew it was where I belonged," she says. McMutrie returned in March 2003 for a six-month stay, helping Saint Fleur set up the first house, hiring nannies and staff, and, as she says, "making sure things were done the way I wanted them to be done." Ten children were brought into the orphanage, and BRESMA was established.
Saint Fleur, as a Haitian, is the owner of BRESMA. Any business in Haiti must be owned by Haitians, and an orphanage is officially considered a business, Jamie explains. Saint Fleur handles much of the paperwork and is quite adept at it, which is the reason BRESMA is known for having the fastest adoption process of any Haitian orphanage. Even with Saint Fleur’s skill, adoptions currently take a frustrating 12 to 18 months, though many are working hard to shorten the process.
One of Saint Fleur’s most important roles, though, especially early on, was getting the nannies at the orphanage to follow Jamie’s orders. "Kids come in extremely malnourished, and in Haiti many women have ideas of how to fix it-whether it’s waving a branch over a child or feeding a baby nothing but lemon juice for four days. Then, when these methods don’t work and the baby dies, the women blame the devil. So it takes a lot of training and trying to change cultural views," McMutrie says. "We have to be there because the nannies can easily go back to their old ways. They don’t believe in formula, only breast-feeding. But if there’s no mother, or the mother’s extremely malnourished, we have no choice. We have to constantly convince our nannies, and sometimes there’s a lot of resistance."
ALI JOINS HER SISTER
Ali McMutrie and their mother, Diane, accompanied Jamie on her trip in March 2003, and Ali, 15 at the time, felt the same immediate sense of belonging that Jamie did. "Once you go, you either know you’re never going back or always will. I just knew I was supposed to be there," Ali says. Like her sister, Ali had always loved working with children, frequently babysitting and helping with child care at church. She was unable to return until she was 17-"the hardest two years of my life," she remembers-because of her parents’ concerns for her safety. During that time, she watched as Jamie traveled to Haiti every three months, each stay lasting two weeks.
Ali returned briefly in 2005, and it was in this year that Haiti changed, and so did Jamie and Ali’s involvement with BRESMA. During a time of political upheaval, after Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide went into exile, Jamie says it had become impossible to communicate from the States. "The Internet and cell phones hadn’t really come yet, and we were going crazy wondering what was going on. There was rioting every day. Corrupt police. That’s when we decided someone had to be there full-time."
They stayed for the month of June 2006 and returned in the fall. At this point there were 80 children in two houses, but some of the infants weren’t doing well. "The babies are born malnourished because the mothers are," Jamie says. In January 2007 they purchased a third house, where they would live and take care of newborns and the most fragile kids, with the help of nannies and a live-in nurse.
Now Jamie and Ali have their routine well-established, with the two of them staying in Haiti most of the time, each one occasionally returning to Pittsburgh, and, rarely, both of them making the trip together.
THE JAMIE-ALI CHANT
The children are the joy of Jamie and Ali’s lives. There are now approximately 130 children in their care, divided among the three houses. Ask them about their favorite times of the day, their most memorable moments, and it’s all about the kids. "When we come downstairs in the morning, the kids start this chant. ‘Toh-loh-loh, Ali, Jamie!’" Ali says. "It really doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a sound. But it’s their way of saying they’re happy beyond words. I love stuff like that." Jamie agrees, "You could be in the worst mood ever, but when you walk out of your bedroom door and see these kids who love you so much, it just makes you so happy."
One of Ali’s most memorable stories involves 3-year-old Migiline, whose sister, Mikerline, had to go to the States on a medical visa. Migiline, Jamie says, was literally dying of sadness. "Ali was only 17, but she saved her; she really did. Migiline was tiny, she was so sick, and she wouldn’t attach to anyone. For two weeks, Ali just held her and played with her, even though she wasn’t responding. There wasn’t anger, happiness, anything," Jamie says. "For a while I thought it was hopeless," Ali admits. "I wondered how I could pour so much love into her, and still get no response. I never experienced anything like it before. Finally, Migiline threw her first temper tantrum. I cried. It was great." Migiline is now reunited with her sister, living in Canada. Another happy ending.
THE NECESSITY OF JOY
One of the most important elements that Jamie and Ali McMutrie bring to the children of BRESMA is joy. In a nation so desperate, where poverty, starvation and disease are rampant, many believe that food and medicine alone will save the orphans. Jamie and Ali realize that love and laughter are equally important. They insist that the babies be held and loved, that all the children be played with and educated.
The ones who appreciate the value of this the most, besides the children themselves, are the adoptive parents. Thanks to the emphasis on the children’s emotional as well as physical health, the parents are thrilled to find that their children are remarkably well-adjusted and have smoother transitions to life at home than could otherwise be hoped for.
Diana Boni is the Haiti and Liberia program coordinator of the nonprofit Alliance for Children adoption agency (allforchildren.org) and adoptive mother of the three children Jamie and Margarette first rescued from the mountain. She says Jamie and Ali give the children not only life but also joy and playfulness. "The kids almost never get that from adults. Ali will spend hours just doing the girls’ hair with beads," she says. "It’s difficult to put into words how courageous Jamie and Ali are. They’re tough cookies. They’ve saved the lives of dozens of babies. Taking in a baby to care for, one who you know could die in your arms-it takes a lot of courage to do this. It’s very real," Boni says.
Another mom, Deneen McCormick, whose 8-year-old son, Wisler, has been home near Chambersburg, Pa., for more than a year, calls Jamie and Ali "unsung heroes." As she explains, "The waiting is so hard, but Jamie and Ali make it easier. They kept in touch with us, sending photos, translating what we said into Kreyol [Haitian "Creole," the native language of Haiti], reassuring the children that they would be going home. And they’re truly selfless. I would ask what I could bring them when I came to visit, and they’d only name things for the kids."
Besides playing with Jamie and Ali, what makes the kids happy? "The children love visitors," Jamie says. "It’s a fun time for them, and usually it means new toys, clothes, candy and snacks." They also love seeing pictures of themselves, superheroes like Batman and Spiderman, Dora the Explorer, Barbie, playing soccer, listening to music, singing and dancing. And what scares them? Illness. "They understand that in Haiti a simple illness can be very serious, that you can never be too cautious," Jamie says. "If Ali or I get a cold, they get scared; they start to cry, and we have to reassure them that we’ll be fine."
Of course, getting the children ready to go home with their adoptive parents is a dramatic time. The children anticipate it for months. During the waiting they receive occasional visits from their parents, packages and photo albums. "We try our best to explain to them what their new lives will be like," Ali says, adding that there’s no way for the children to come close to comprehending how different their lives will be.
Life in Haiti for the two sisters is constantly busy. It involves going to each of the three houses to check on the kids and staff, taking children into town for passport photos, going to embassies and other government offices, lots and lots of shopping for lots and lots of diapers and food, and accompanying adoptive parents when they visit or, on the best visit of all, when they come to pick up their children and bring them to their "forever home."
Accomplishing simple tasks can be frustratingly difficult in Haiti. It often takes trips to several stores to complete a basic shopping list-that is, if the bank actually has cash on hand that day. The lines in government offices can be mind-numbingly slow.
One of the people who is most adamantly supportive of Jamie and Ali is Jamie’s husband, Doug Heckman. They’ve been married since 2005, and it certainly is an unusual marriage arrangement when one spouse lives much of the time in a Third World orphanage. But Heckman visits as often as possible, and Jamie comes home when she can, and, he is quick to point out, it works for them. "The person I love, what makes Jamie who she is, is this thing that she does. When she’s with the kids, you can see that’s where she’s supposed to be. And Ali’s exactly the same way."
Never was Jamie’s dedication more evident than in the aftermath of last September’s torrential attack by Hurricane Gustav. Hurricane Hannah was on her way to add more death and destruction. Jamie’s phone rang, and on the other end was the pleading mother of a 1-year-old baby, Dieunette, who had been back in Gonaives, Haiti, less than a week after returning from the United States for brain-tumor surgery. The town was under water with people on rooftops, and there were dead bodies and animals floating in the streets. She was stranded, had no food or water, nothing to feed the baby.
Jamie borrowed a 4WD truck, enlisted Lissa Bazille, the orphanage’s teacher, and set out to Gonaives. Mud slides, washed-out bridges, washed-out roads-it took Jamie and Lissa 24 hours to reach the town limits. Jamie wanted to go into Gonaives to reach the baby, but to do so would have meant certain death. Gonaives is the home to some of the worst of Haiti’s jails, and, because of the storm, the doors had been opened. Jamie would have been an immediate target. Lissa went in, found Dieunette, who had only a bottle with dirty water, and they brought her back to the orphanage. Today, Dieunette is healthy, cared-for and waiting to go home to a loving family in Nebraska.
SMALL PLEASURES. BIG DREAMS.
Jamie and Ali McMutrie both say they love what they do. They love the children, obviously. They love the bond they’ve formed with each other, not only as sisters, but also, they say, as best friends, enjoying each other’s company, able to support and depend on the other when times are difficult. And they’ve also grown to love Haiti itself. "We love the Haitian culture. Haitians love each other. They know what community truly means, because they have to," Jamie says. Both women say they feel more at home in Haiti than in Pittsburgh. What do they love most? Ali mentions small pleasures, such as driving into town for a cup of good coffee. "When you anticipate a cup of coffee for four days, you definitely appreciate it more."
Jamie mentions a profound pleasure. "I love watching people…live. I love watching a child who was going to die, then after spending a few dollars and some time and care, they live."
They both marvel at the progress of the children who come to them. "First they just start to get bigger and cry more because they realize they’ll get something out of crying," says Ali. "It takes two months, and we get a personality from them. When they first come, they eat until they’re about to explode because they think they’re never going to get another meal." However, as Jamie notes, it’s not just about the food. "Sometimes, at first, they think that’s the last time you’re ever going to look at them, the last time they’ll be held, because kids can die from lack of love. They can have enough food, but they can die of sadness."
It amazes Jamie and Ali to watch the children move beyond that, to become happy, healthy, confident children. It’s for this reason they want BRESMA to grow. Their dream is to one day buy a plot of land where the children can play and to build a larger home to accommodate more children, including those they sadly have to turn away because of overcrowding.
And what about the joy of gratitude, of recognition for the noble work they do? Ask Jamie and Ali McMutrie, and they just shake their heads. "For me, it’s not giving of myself," says Jamie. "People will say to me, ‘Thank you for all you’re doing for these kids.’ But I can’t imagine doing anything else. I’m really, really happy doing it. I love doing it. It’s almost selfish." PM
Jonathan Wander is a contributing editor for Pittsburgh Magazine. His work has appeared in in Men’s Health, among other publications, and he writes for a variety of news media, including broadcast and Web, as well as for local advertising agencies, corporations and nonprofit organizations.