They say that a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. Today, I bring to you the story of a good person, Katie Meyler, and that first step she made back in 2006 when she left behind an unhappy childhood in New Jersey, joined an international relief organization, and headed to West Africa. When she first arrived in Liberia, she set out to teach adult literacy classes, and she intended to stay for only six months. Fate had other plans. One day, Katie met an 11-year-old girl named Abigail. Abigail, as it turned out, was selling herself on the streets of West Point, Liberia, in order to get clean drinking water for herself and her family. Can you imagine? Abigail told Katie that all she really wanted was to go to school. More than 40% of girls in Liberia had never been to school, and many were in the same situation as Abigail, exposed to violence on a daily basis.
I will let Katie tell you about More Than Me …
“I founded More Than Me when I was living in Liberia. Kids were asking me to help them get off the street and into school, and I paid their school fees. I told their stories on Myspace, and people donated money to the cause. A New York City tax attorney said to me, “You know, you really should start an organization and make this all legitimate.” I went to my best friend Josh, and I said to him, “I’ve been thinking about forming an organization. I think I want to do it, but I’m afraid. I’m not sure I’m qualified.” He looked at me and said, “Katie, get over yourself. It’s not about you.” Those words played in my head over and over again. It’s not about you. It’s not about you. And that’s where the name More Than Me originated. So the name More Than Me comes from living for something bigger than yourself and getting over your own insecurities. I started it as a means to provide education for vulnerable children in Liberia.”
More Than Me (MTM) works in partnership with the Liberian Ministry of Education to rebuild the education system, and ensure girls like Abigail have access to basic human rights. The objective is that every child will attend and graduate primary school prepared to take their next step in life, which in turn, will bring stability to the country and grow the economy.
“From the beginning, More Than Me provided educational opportunities for vulnerable children. We identified girls who were sexually exploited, and I really wanted to focus on helping them first. Many of these girls were located in a slum called West Point, and that’s where we decided to target our mission.
Through our work, we wanted to make sure we took care of the whole girl. So we started providing after-school activities. We also offered health care, sexual and reproductive health classes, food programs and deworming programs. We opened up our own school, and the president of Liberia gave us a building. Now, we’re looking to rebuild education in Liberia so that when children graduate they feel like they have options and security.”
Through the MTM Academy, K-8 girls attend a tuition-free school that provides high quality education and holistic services like healthcare, family planning, psychosocial support, and a feeding program for the most vulnerable girls in Monrovia. More Than Me Academy continues to pay the girls school fees onward through high school.
In its first year, MTM was able to send only 5 girls to school, but that quickly grew and by 2017 they were schooling 1,500 children. Their goal is to be educating nearly 250,000 kids by the year 2020.
In 2014, the deadly Ebola virus struck at the heart of Liberia. More than 11,000 people in Liberia would die from the disease. Monrovia was among the hardest hit, and specifically the West Point area where the MTM Academy was located. Faced with the decision to leave or stay, Katie stayed. All schools were closed for an entire year after Ebola struck. Residents were quarantined inside, and most Westerners left. Meyler admits she was fearful.
“What defines you the most is what you do despite your fear, and so I was extremely afraid. I signed my power of attorney away before I left, just in case something happened. There was a real, legitimate concern that I might not return home.
Our plan was do everything you can to keep everybody alive, and then when you can’t do anything else, bring dignity in death, so we did a lot of that, too—singing to people, praying with people while they died. Children that were dying outside, some of them were just laying outside the overflow center. The ones inside were actually worse off, because they were the dead mixed with the living. They could barely move, barely could speak.”
A brief snippet from the More Than Me website:
Liberia, West Africa has a population of about 4 million people. The official language is English – the name Liberia derives from “Liberty” meaning freedom. Liberia’s current president (and Nobel Laureate) Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the first female head of state in Africa! A 14-year brutal civil war left the country in shambles, including destroying over 80% of its schools. The recent Ebola epidemic further weakened Liberia’s infrastructure.
Liberia’s education system is in a state of emergency.
- Each one of the 25,000 applicants to the University of Liberia in 2013 failed the entrance exam.
- 65% of primary school age children are out of school.
- More than half (51%) of young people aged 15-24 are illiterate and approximately 73% of all women and girls in Liberia are illiterate.
- Only 17% of teachers have a tertiary degree-level qualification.
- Only 20% of students enrolled in Grade 1, enroll in Grade 12.
If Liberia is going to build a more stable and resilient future, we cannot stand still.
According to GirlUp, more than 40% of Liberian girls ages 10-14 have never gone to school. Unfortunately, young girls fall victim to the most frequently reported crime in Liberia, rape. But investing in girls has huge rewards:Why Girls?
- When a girl in the developing world receives 7 or more years of education, she marries 4 years later and has 2.2 fewer children.
- An extra year of primary school boosts girls’ eventual wages by 10-20%. An extra year of secondary school: 15-25%.
- When women and girls earn income, they reinvest 90% of it into their families, as compared to only 30-40% for a man.
For girls to get to a place where they feel secure, there needs to be education for all.
Meyler believes one of the main contributors to the Ebola crisis was the lack of education, so she approached the minister of education, George Werner, and asked him to consider partnering with private groups to overhaul the public schools. A pilot project began this fall using seven different organizations to revamp 94 schools. More Than Me was put in charge of six of those schools.
Meyler and her staff have helped oversee school repairs and development of new curricula and installation of teacher trainers at each of the six schools. The attention she earned during the Ebola crisis, including being named a TIME magazine Person of the Year, has opened the doors to philanthropists. Meyler hopes to raise $25 million over the next five years to expand to 500 schools. But, ultimately, she hopes the partnership project is so successful that the private partners can relinquish their roles.
“Our goal here is to go out of business. I mean I can tell you for us we’re successful when we’re not needed anymore. We’re successful when Liberia’s government can run these schools, and the teachers are at capacity, and Liberia doesn’t need to have the external support. And that’s what we working toward.”