- Associated Press - Sunday, January 19, 2014

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Four years after Jamie and Ali McMutrie flew 54 orphans out of an earthquake-flattened Haiti into the international spotlight, those events are still outshining the sisters’ current mission to keep Haitian families together.

The harrowing 2010 evacuation, which took cooperation from the U.S. State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and former Gov. Ed Rendell, provided the foundation upon which their charity, Haitian Families First, was built. However, it also made them famous for taking children out of Haiti to new families instead of helping the country’s parents to help themselves.

Once news of the post-earthquake rescue spread, the McMutries became overnight celebrities. After making the rounds on CNN, “Good Morning America” and “The Ellen Degeneres Show,” the duo drummed up enough attention to raise $180,000 toward their efforts to bring aid to orphans. After teams of lawyers volunteered to guide them through the nonprofit 501(c)3 process pro bono, Haitian Families First was established, and the McMutries were ready to hit the ground running.

The idea behind Haitian Families First (haitianfamiliesfirst.org), which achieved official nonprofit status in 2010, is to help families in moments of crisis with medical, nutritional and educational interventions designed to keep children with parents and close relatives, Ali McMutrie explained during a discussion with her sister in their Ben Avon home last week.

“We ask (families) what is it that has got you to this point? Did you lose your job? Did someone in the family get sick? Any variation of things - and they are things that happen to people everywhere; it’s not just Haiti. The difference there is the social services to provide options for them don’t really exist or are not as strong as they need to be,” she said.

Although Jamie McMutrie, 34, had been volunteering at the Port-Au-Prince Orphanage Bresma since she arrived in Haiti in 2002, a plan to keep Haitian children with their parents had been in the back of her mind practically from the start.

“When I moved there, after about five days I realized that the children living in the orphanage had parents and weren’t orphans in the sense that we in the United States think. They were in the orphanage because their parents couldn’t afford to take care of them.”

Once Ali, 26, moved to Haiti after high school graduation in 2006, they both spent their time at Bresma caring for the children but also letting parents know adoption wasn’t their only recourse.

“I kept volunteering at the orphanage until the earthquake, but throughout all of that time kept helping families in other ways so that they could keep their children,” said Jamie.

With a pool of startup funds, a wave of international goodwill and a reputation among Haitians, building Haitian Families First into a world-class nonprofit seemed like it should fall into place smoothly. With locations set up in Port-au-Prince, Saint-Marc, Fort Jacques and Saut-d’Eau, the sisters opened up for business ready to make an immediate impact.

What they got, instead, was an uphill climb stacked with learning curves to navigate and lessons to live by in and out of Haiti.

“It’s an ordeal. It takes a lot of different people (to help)” said Ali.

One of the first rules the McMutries would learn is that fundraising is an ongoing process in the nonprofit world.

Working off an annual operating budget of around $100,000, the sisters went through the donations raised after the earthquake in about a year and a half. Once those funds dried up, the sisters - who were both still living in Haiti - realized they couldn’t rely on a team of seven Pittsburgh volunteers to do the heavy lifting when it comes to supporting the company financially.

“In 2012, we realized one of us needed to come back to get the business side under control and Ali decided that … well, we flipped a coin,” said Jamie, and both sisters laughed.

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