Update: The McMutrie Sisters' Mission 5 Years After the Haiti Earthquake

Jamie and Ali McMutrie were PM's 2010 Pittsburghers of the Year after airlifting 54 youngsters to safety. Now, they have forged a relationship with a major global player to continue their work to prevent struggling Haitian families from surrendering children to orphanages.

Photos by Dieu Nalio Chery


In late 2012, Vivian Lee Croft was spending many nights brainstorming ways to let the world know what Jamie and Ali McMutrie had been up to since a catastrophic earthquake two years earlier had drawn international attention to their work in Haiti.

“For so long in Pittsburgh everyone knew Jamie and Ali as the girls who helped the orphans, which was great and fine. But the work that came after that more honestly was working [to keep] kids out of the orphanages altogether,” says Croft, secretary of the board and former operations director of Haitian Families First, the nonprofit organization the sisters founded.

To clear her head, Croft opened and scanned the TED website, which promotes sharing of ideas through short, focused talks posted online. Among the featured videos she spotted was “The Tragedy of Orphanages,” given by Georgette Mulheir, CEO of the London-based Lumos Foundation.

Founded by famed “Harry Potter” novelist J.K. Rowling, Lumos is an international organization that aims to end the custom of relinquishing children to orphanages and similar institutions — sometimes to await adoption, sometimes to grow up in limbo — because their families believe they cannot care for the youngsters at home.

In her TED talk, Mulheir details the plight of approximately 1 million children in Europe and Central Asia who live in orphanages. More than 95 percent of them have living parents, she says, but poverty, disability or discrimination have spurred those parents to send their children away to institutions that often are understaffed and lack resources.

For many of those children, the results of institutional care have been developmental, behavioral and health problems; children raised in institutions also have been found to face far-higher risks of committing suicide, becoming involved in prostitution or acquiring criminal records, Mulheir notes in her talk.

After watching for two minutes, Croft sent text messages to Jamie, then in Haiti, and Ali, in Pittsburgh.

“I thought, if this isn’t a sign, I don’t know what is,” Croft says. “I said, ‘You guys are not going to believe this. Here is someone doing what you’re doing . . . This is huge.’”

Croft reached out with a tweet to Lumos as well, saying, “We’re doing what you’re doing, and we have to talk to you.”

The next day, Croft received a tweet in response: Mulheir wanted to talk.

Neither the McMutries nor Croft had heard of Lumos before that night, but the charity’s mission immediately resonated with them. The sisters and Ben Avon natives have been working quietly to accomplish similar goals over the 12 years since Jamie left Pittsburgh to volunteer in an orphanage in Haiti, where Ali joined her a few years later.

In that time, the sisters’ mission in Haiti would draw an international spotlight following a devastating earthquake there in 2010, and they would transition from working in orphanages to establishing and running their own small nonprofit organization. Through Haitian Families First, the sisters work directly with approximately 100 children and their families, helping children get to school and directing families to health care and other resources that would keep them intact.

“People have this view of an orphanage [as] a place that will take care of kids because there are no parents. Unfortunately what we thought to be true for so long isn’t true,” Ali says.

“People ask, ‘Why do you think that it’s such a huge problem?’ But it’s kind of become a cultural norm [in Haiti]. It’s like a Starbucks in America — there’s one on every corner. That’s how orphanages are — if you’re having a hard time, walk a couple more blocks and you’ll find someone to take your kids . . . We want to empower families to see they can do this on their own.”

Since that initial exchange on Twitter, officials at Lumos increasingly have become mentors for Haitian Families First. Now the McMutries are seeking to establish a formal partnership with the larger organization that would bring training, a higher profile and more opportunities for funding and grants to fast-track their mission of eliminating the orphanage system in Haiti.

Rowling — the British novelist best known for her enormously popular series of fantasy books and related films — founded Lumos in 2005 after reading about the plight of disabled children confined to caged beds in institutions in the Czech Republic. The international organization connects with national and local governments, non-governmental and service agencies and other entities to provide health care, education and social services to struggling families.

As life president of Lumos, Rowling features the organization prominently on her website and speaks frequently about its work and mission to international leaders and donors. Lumos does not operate in the United States, according to the U.S. State Department, but it recently has joined the Global Alliance for Children, a global advocacy nonprofit, whose members include the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. Department of Labor.

To date, Lumos has established a formal presence in six countries working with organizations similar to Haitian Families First. While it has not done so in Haiti, Lumos says it is exploring opportunities to expand its work into Latin America — hence its ongoing dialogue with Haitian Families First.

“We think it is gratifying that [Haitian Families First is] finding solutions that help families stay together,” says Lumos spokeswoman Vicky Gillings. “Decades of research show us the children do best when they are in their own families, or where that is not possible, family-based care. So it is gratifying to hear about other [non-governmental organizations] who are working towards keeping children in their own families and prioritizing family-based care.”

In a sign of its growing relationship, Lumos in 2014 included data compiled by Haitian Families First in its publication “Ending the Institutionalization of Children Globally — the Time is Now.”

Gillings says Lumos is exploring an expansion into the Caribbean region — and Haiti in particular — for two reasons. She compared Haiti to Moldova, where Lumos already is operating and has had success.

“Where there is political will to change, funding can be found to support the . . . process,” she says.

Also, approximately 80 percent of children living in institutions in Haiti have at least one living parent, which means many children could be supported at home or with family members, Gillings says.

Ideally, the process of shutting down mass holding sites for children calls for reuniting children with parents or other direct relatives. For children with complex needs that cannot be met at home even with assistance, placement in a small group home is one option. Foster care is another if a family-based option is not available immediately.

“They do have resources to come here and shut down all the orphanages, but what they want to do is work with the government to say ‘Yes, it’s better for our children to stay inside of their families and have a good education system and have health care within their families,” Jamie says. “I love this about them.

“I didn’t have any idea on how to make it work on a large scale,” she adds. “Seeing they have done it before in countries similar to Haiti — they have steps and books written about it and ways to work with the government and help people understand why it’s better — all of these resources that would have taken me a lifetime to figure out.”

Jamie McMutrie first traveled to Haiti in 2002. Then 23, she loved children and says she’d always felt compelled to work in an orphanage. She heard about one in need of volunteers and committed to a six-month stay there, intending to return to Pittsburgh eventually and become a social worker. She previously had worked in day-care centers, run a program for teenage mothers on the North Side and studied sociology at the Community College of Allegheny County and Toccoa Falls College in Georgia.

On her first Sunday in Haiti, she watched as other volunteers started dressing the children in their nicest clothes and tending to their hair. Jamie asked why.

“They said, ‘Oh, it’s visiting day. Sunday is the day the moms and dads come to visit their kids.’

“And I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’”

The Haitian government, USAID and the United Nations Children’s Fund all estimate that more than 24,000 of the 30,000 children in that nation’s institutions have at least one living parent. A country the approximate size of Massachusetts, Haiti has a population of about 10 million people.

Most so-called orphanages there are actually holding centers that offer housing, schooling and food but don’t handle adoptions, the McMutries say. Those that do place most of the children in other countries. According to the U.S. State Department, U.S. families adopted 388 children from Haiti in 2013.

“Almost all of those kids that are in that 30,000 number are living [in the institution]. . . until they’re old enough to leave,” Ali says, noting that children “age out” of the system between ages 14 and 20.

After Jamie moved to Haiti, Ali, then age 15, visited her sister several times. She graduated from Avonworth High School in 2006 and went to work with Jamie full-time. She says she, too, was unsettled to watch as parents came to visit their children in the orphanage — some traveling up to four hours each way.

“It started to build up in our minds that there are people who care about these kids, but [the children are] living in these deplorable conditions. No matter how hard we tried, an orphanage is not a place where you should raise kids,” Ali says.

The sisters started talking to parents who dropped off their children, asking what they could do to help. They directed families seeking medical attention to a free clinic. They offered formula to infants whose mothers had died and whose families couldn’t afford to buy it — Ali says they watched desperate fathers soak bread until it was soft enough to put in a bottle, but this only made the babies sick.

They continued this work until January 2010, when an earthquake devastated much of the country. Jamie and Ali made international news as former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and other federal and state officials arranged an emergency airlift for 54 children from the orphanage. All of those children later were adopted. In recognition of those accomplishments, Pittsburgh Magazine honored the sisters as its 2010 Pittsburghers of the Year.

When Jamie and Ali returned to Haiti a few months later, they founded Haitian Families First, which they initially called Haitian Orphan Rescue. They also began to focus publicly on a mission that shifted from supporting children within the orphanage system to assisting families that, with support and alternatives to orphanage care, could stay intact.

Today, Haitian Families First and its staff of about 10 employees operate three core programs aimed at providing nutrition, education and health and wellness care. In 2013, it ensured that around 76 of approximately 100 children in its programs who would have otherwise been headed for an orphanage now are living with one or both parents. Many of those children were newborns whose mothers were HIV-positive or ill with tuberculosis and couldn’t breastfeed; Haitian Families First provided milk or formula and helped fathers monitor the babies’ growth. Relatives are caring for most of the remaining children involved with its programs.

Public perception abroad is one of the main challenges the sisters say they face. People are quick to sympathize with and help orphans. They’re willing to sponsor or adopt them. It’s hard for donors to understand that funding orphanages may do more harm than good, they say.

The McMutries also turn down donations that aren’t in line with their mission.

“We got an offer for a ton of money to build a new orphanage [after the earthquake], and Jamie and I just look at each other and say, ‘That’s not what we’re about,’” Ali says. “We want all these really well-intentioned donors to know their money in Haiti can be used in such a more meaningful way.”

The McMutries are changing the system in Haiti from the ground up, says Elizabeth Dowling, of Denver, a teacher and former international development worker who adopted her daughter, Jenna, from the orphanage in Haiti where the sisters initially worked. Dowling’s daughter was among the children airlifted from Haiti with the sisters after the earthquake in 2010, and her school holds an annual fundraising event to benefit their work.

“I think the things they’re focusing on are exactly what they should be focusing on to lift Haiti out of poverty . . . I think they’re a model,” says Dowling, whose international work involved helping young people to start businesses in order to help their families thrive. “They’re a small organization, and they’re making a big impact on a tiny island.”

After initial exchanges with Croft and the McMutries, officials with Lumos invited them to attend a four-day training seminar in London in August 2013. Side-by-side with government representatives and leaders from organizations based mostly in European countries where Lumos has been working successfully, Ali and Croft explored the process of replacing a country’s orphanages and institutions with options better suited for children who require care.

They learned how to analyze a country’s needs — tracking how many children are housed in institutions, why they’ve been placed there and what their families will need to keep them at home. They also were trained on assembling a team to manage that process and designing services required by families to stay together.

Since then, they’ve shared those methods with other community and government leaders in Haiti and are developing strategies to tap resources in communities beyond their current operations.

Much of Lumos’ work involves lobbying to educate people about its mission and to persuade government leaders to implement the necessary changes. Among its successes: convincing the European Union in 2013 to direct funding to its member nations for family- or community-based care for children rather than orphanages and similar institutions.

The global charity has set a lofty goal: to ensure no children are living in institutions in Europe by 2030 and none are living in institutions in the world by 2050.

“We will consign this terrible practice to the history books,” it states in its literature.

While Haitian Families First has no such defined timetable, its work toward that goal is reaping tangible rewards, says Jamie, now 35 and the mother of a 1-year-old boy whose father is a Haitian man. She remains in Haiti while Ali, 26, is based mostly in Pittsburgh to handle administrative and fundraising duties.

Two days each week, Jamie works in hospitals educating parents and caregivers on options for sick children. “A lot of times they go in and say, ‘My baby’s sick, and we don’t have any money,’ and a nurse will say, ‘Here’s this number. Call an orphanage,’” she says.

Since Haitian Families First began its work, Jamie says she’s seen that reaction become less commonplace. Pediatricians now refer families to her for help in finding a free clinic or formula they can afford. She counsels parents, making sure they know they have options — and that they have a right to keep their children.

Jamie visits schools where Haitian Families First sponsors children and, in one case, is starting a lunch program; kids there were falling asleep in class because they weren’t eating before they arrived. She also trains employees, including some who themselves were aided by the organization.

Among them is Junia, a mother of two girls who left an abusive husband after she was laid off from a job at a resort. She couldn’t afford to care for her daughters and initially believed she had no options other than an orphanage.

“She was blown away by the fact our organization had another opportunity to offer,” Ali says. “She had never met any other foreign operation who was willing to say, ‘We can help you with another way.’”

Junia later went to work for Haitian Families First, tracking down relatives of abandoned children, distributing supplies and working with staff in hospitals, among other tasks. In one hospital, Junia encountered Jeremie, a boy whose mother died in childbirth; he weighed only 2 pounds at birth.

“Honestly, what they would have done if there was no one to take him in, was to leave him to die,” Ali says. “Junia said she wanted to adopt him herself. She had gotten to the point where she said, ‘What’s going to happen to that little boy if no one steps up?’ and she stepped up.”

The same could be said for the McMutrie sisters, who after the high-profile airlift from Haiti five years ago could have opted to stay in Pittsburgh rather than return to the earthquake-ravaged country. Now they look forward to the potential of what for them would be a game-changing partnership with Lumos.

“I was reading an article we did in 2011, and one of us said, ‘We know we’ll never see all the orphanages shut down in our lifetime,’” Ali recalls. “But now I think we will.”  



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