Katie Meyler finds More Than Me in Liberia
Her effort to help girls in this West African country stay off the streets and get an education has turned into a personal cause.
In 2006, Katie Meyler moved to Liberia to manage projects aiding children orphaned by the civil war there. While living and working in a remote village, she would visit the capital city, Monrovia, from time to time.
"When I would come to the capital city, I would make friends with the kids in the streets," Ms. Meyler says. In getting to know the children, she would sometimes ask them about their dreams and ambitions, and what they wanted most in life. For many, she says, education topped the list.
"I started paying their school fees," she recalls, noting that she wanted to help them receive a proper education. "But a few kids became 30 kids."
Recognizing that she could not personally fund education for the growing group, Meyler turned to social media – sharing her stories about the children, which resulted in donations that helped cover their school expenses.
It 2009, after being persuaded by a friend, she founded More Than Me – a scholarship program for the children she had befriended.
"I would make friends with these kids, [and] really the thing they would want more than anything is to go to school," says Meyler, who realized an irony from her own childhood. "I grew up hating school my whole life."
She came to understand that school meant even more than getting an education to the children: "If they weren't in school, they were working."
That would mean work for children of all ages, often outdoors regardless of weather conditions. And for young women, there was an even more tragic threat: being roped into the sex trade.
More Than Me is designed specifically to help young women choose the lives they wish to lead. It provides girls from the West Point slum in Monrovia with educational, health, and social services, addressing needs from food and nutrition to reproductive health.
"We address every barrier that a girl faces," says Meyler, who adds that the cause has become personal because of the friendships she has developed in Liberia. "These were no longer statistics that I was reading about," she says. "These were my friends."
The More Than Me Academy, the first of its kind in Liberia, is a tuition-free, all-girls school that currently has 150 students. The academic program is accompanied by two meals each day, access to health care, technology and library resources, and after-school activities.
Together, this range of services keeps students off the streets from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The mission of More Than Me has grown beyond formal education, she says. The unpredictable nature of life in Liberia presents a wide range of challenges, most notably the recent Ebola outbreak.
"I would say that we do education, but we are an organization that relentless will fight and respond to the needs of the children we serve," Meyler says. "If that means trying to save a life, it means trying to save a life.”
Confirmed cases of Ebola in the West Point community last August led to a collaboration between More Than Me and Liberia's ministry of health, along with other partners. More Than Me launched response programs across six communities in Monrovia, reaching more than 500,000 residents.
Most recently, the focus has shifted to support for survivors.
As conditions deteriorated and the outbreak spread, More Than Me began to serve as an intermediary, working with community leaders and various groups to determine their most pressing needs and working tirelessly to meet them. Needless to say, this involved some temporary re-allotment of resources.
"We had to convert our guest house into a home for children who were affected by Ebola and had no other place to go," Meyler says. "Our school became the Ebola response center."
Moving forward, Meyler says she has hopes to grow her organization, applying some of its approaches to other parts of the education system.
More Than Me will continue "to listen deeply to the community and address the needs that impact these girls in a broader way, rather than just putting an immediate [bandage] on the problem," she says.
The mission of More Than Me, she says, focuses on a single objective: "We are relentlessly fighting for our girls."
• For more information or to get involved, visit www.morethanme.org.