Guest Post: Katie Meyler // More Than Me
I (Diane) grew up in New Jersey with Katie Meyler and we both ended up moving to the continent of Africa (different countries, though) as adults. She started an organization to use education for transformative social change for every girl in Liberia.
Katie is a TIME Person of the Year, recognized for her work on the front lines of Ebola. led the organization she founded, More Than Me, to win $1MM from the Chase Bank American Giving Awards. In September 2013 she, alongside Nobel Laureate and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, cut the ribbon to More Than Me Academy – the first tuition-free, all-girls school in Liberia. President Sirleaf said, “The number one way an American can support Liberia is to help Katie Meyler get all those young girls off the street learning to become good professionals.” We are excited to share this interview with you and hope that you, too, will be inspired and partner with her to send more young girls in Liberia to school.
How did you get to Liberia?
The short version is, my first job out of college was an internship with an organization called, Samaritan’s Purse. They sent me to Liberia in June 2006 to run an adult literacy program.
The longer version is … I grew up poor. My single mother of 3 worked an overnight shift making minimum wage at the Lipton Tea Factory however my small town in New Jersey was one of the wealthiest towns in America. I had a false perception of the world that I was very poor and the world was very rich. On top of feeling unloved, unwelcome, and never enough in my town (not by my mom or anything) there were drugs, abuse, and chaos in my family. I found my uncle dead of heroin overdose when I was 8. I remember telling that story in show-and-tell in the 1st grade. I was sexually abused when I was 11 by a youth pastor at a church that a friend brought me to and all the kids in town made fun of me. One kid even flung mashed potatoes in my hair and I was called, “Lice, Lice Katie.”
The truth is, love changed my life. When I was in high school I started attending a church. People really cared about me there and I learned about Jesus. He wasn’t a religion or a box someone checks on a census. He actually didn’t feel like anything that I had really learned about growing up in different kinds of churches (most of which I found boring and irrelevant). Jesus was a little crazy, nothing boring about Him. He loved the outcast, people like me. He also said, “follow me.” To me that meant be kind to others including your enemies, stand up for the underdogs, and "love people like you love yourself.” I took that kind of literally and it’s led me to some really extreme places. At first, in high school, it led me to hang with the homeless in NYC, to play guitar and make people laugh like Phoebe from friends with old people who felt abandoned in nursing homes, it eventually led me to go on a trip with my church youth group. They were going to Haiti. Because my family didn’t have money, I hadn’t traveled much out of NJ before but I knew I could raise enough money to go. I made a sign, “Send Katie to Haiti” and asked people to help me. They did. Because of political unrest we ended up in Central America and I saw poverty like I had never known existed. People lived without basic needs like clean drinking water, access to healthcare, and there were places with no education which meant there would be kids without a shot at a future.
I learned that this was the norm around the world. That 88% of the world lived in developing countries and the majority of people in the majority of countries lived without their basic rights. My worldview flipped, “I was one of the world’s wealthiest most privileged people. Oh.” I realized I had a sense of responsibility and I had to do something. There are tons of twists and turns in this story including many summers in Bolivia or the Philippines working with street children or helping to run health clinics but essentially my first job out of college was an internship that sent me to Liberia.
Why did you name it, More Than Me?
After moving to Liberia I met kids that worked on the street. I’m like a big kid myself so I started hanging with them for fun. Eventually, I asked them if they could have anything in the world what it would be and they would always say, “My biggest dream is to go to school.” I couldn’t walk away. I helped James get to school, then Elizabeth, then Isaac, then Nancy. Soon I had 30 kids on scholarship and I was using social media, MySpace, back in the day, to tell their stories and raise money. A lawyer friend told me to start an organization and make my work legitimate. I remember feeling inadequate. I wasn’t a super hero or a celebrity, I was just a normal person from NJ. Where would I get the money? How could I?
I went to my best friend and told him all of these self-doubts he gave me the best advice of my entire life. “Katie, Get the F over yourself. It’s not about you.” So I thought about it over and over again. “It’s not about you. It’s not about you. It’s not about you.” Yes, it’s about: “More Than Me.” It’s about something so much bigger than what I am good at or bad at.
“Katie, Get the F over yourself. It’s not about you.” So I thought about it over and over again. “It’s not about you. It’s not about you. It’s not about you.” Yes, it’s about: “More Than Me.”
Truthfully, it’s not about education. It’s about love. It’s about the value of every life. These children told me they wanted to go to school and that’s why education. They asked for it, but really it’s about loving them and believing that their life, their purpose, their future and what they have to bring to this world, matters.
There are a lot of other reasons why education, but the love and human dignity is first. When children are educated they have a voice in their communities. They have power. They are no longer stuck. They are less likely to die at a young age, their kids are less likely to die young. The more people that are educated the more peaceful the country is, the less sickness, the more jobs, the more the economy grows, its strengthens systems like the justice system so less young women are raped, it strengthens health systems so an Ebola epidemic cannot kill thousands of innocent people, on and on and on.
Why do you feel it is important for you, as a young woman, to be leading an organization to empower young girls?
There is a global consciousness growing that it’s important for more women to lead in all areas. I can’t wait to see more women in finance and tech and politics and in everything everywhere including in education and in women and girls empowerment. It only makes sense that when young women see a woman leading they think they can do it too. That’s why I think it’s pretty amazing that our girls in Liberia had the 1st female president in Africa but that obviously doesn’t change everything. More Than Me Academy has many strong women for our girls to look up to including their school principal, their guidance counselor, their nurse, and most of their teachers.
I have guy friends that run organizations that empower women, too and I think that’s cool as well. It’s important that we all just do what we were put on this earth to do and do it fiercefully regardless of our gender.
Women have a tendency to doubt ourselves more and I think that stops us from listening to that blinking light inside of us talking to us. We gotta stop doing that and more and more women are both in Liberia and around the world!
How did you fall in love with a country thats not your passport nation?
Liberia, if you give it any kind of a chance, it gets deep in the heart and it holds on tight and it doesn’t let go. Once you go to Liberia, it never ever leaves you.
My love for the people of Liberia is beyond any words and I’m not sure how that ever happened or exactly when it did. I noticed at some point I started to get defensive if anyone would talk bad about her.
The people have adopted me, made me their sister, their mother, their neighbor, and friend in a way that I can’t describe. We have been through hell and high water together and it doesn’t really get any easier and somehow, I accept that and feel grateful that she ever let me in. Liberia has made me who I am
I also think we fall in love with what we fight for. And for the last 12 years I have partnered with Liberia to fight. Not just for young women, because you realize that the young girls we serve have families, sisters and brothers and neighbors and cousins and grandmothers and grandfathers sometimes living close by, sometimes living in other counties and you realize the depth of community and the girls are a part of that and our work exists within that.
Nothing about Liberia is easy. And I’ve heard it said, “If you can make it in Liberia you can make it anywhere.” The country has a really intense and layered background mixed with a foundation of slavery, war and a dynamic relationship with the USA, but after staying and living through many triumphs and many defeats and making my life and spending my life there, it became my home.
Why did you stay through Ebola?
There’s this saying, “Until you found something worth dying for, you’re not really living.” I have found something worth dying for.
I didn’t see it as much of a choice. Like back where I talk about my love for Liberia, Liberia is home. My home was in trouble. My friends, my girls, baby Kate (my namesake), my neighbors Dede and Miatta were in trouble. Everything inside of me said that I needed to stay and do something. And it was one those moments where you think you’d do the right thing and no one would blame you if you didn’t but you do it anyway and in a way, you surprise yourself. Yeah, it was like that. I really did what I thought I would do. Also, something took over me. I knew if I didn’t stay my girls, my team, my friends could die and I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if that happened so I stayed and I gave everything that I had inside of me and so did our team of over 65 people (100’s of more people were on our payroll but they were not on the core team, they were community workers that needed pay) and not one single person on our team got Ebola. It was unbelievable and the most important thing I ever had the chance to be a part of. I will never ever be the same person again.
What are the hard days like?
A baby being abandoned at our gate. A child coming to school with black and blue marks from being beat up. The community stoning the school because they’re mad at me because we turned in someone that sexually abused our children. Having to teach families that sexual abuse is a crime. Having to convince families that their daughters deserve the same chance at school as their boys. Having to convince a family that they should let us take their dying child to a hospital because the church or a natural healer wasn’t enough, that the child needed medical attention. Holding a screaming mother who lost her daughter. Learning that if we don’t put cement over the grave that people will dig up the girls body to steal the clothes she was buried in and resell the grave to another family. Seeing kindergarten kids faint from hunger knowing the problem cannot be solved for the entire country that day. Watching a little girl working in the hot sun all day with sweat mixed with dirt pouring down her face being called a swamp pig by the kids around her. Doing everything in our might to help a girl to choose a future for herself and watching her go back to the streets instead. A hard day is praying and singing to a child when they are dying in a puddle of their own blood and feces because the only thing left to do is to try to bring dignity in death. The hardest day is trying to get the words out when trying to tell her mother that her last daughter didn’t make it and watching her convulse when she understands what I’m trying to get out but I can’t.
There are also hard days of being misunderstood. I’m white working in West Africa and people can rightfully be skeptical. White people working in Africa haven’t always done nice things. Usually though, those people are unfamiliar with our work or have misinformation and they can do things that make our already intense work much harder. But, I always know that my worst day will never ever come even close to what most of our your girls have had to come through or that they still are going through and that is why I wake up every day and put one foot in front of the next and remind myself constantly, “It’s not about you!”
What are good days like?
Now that I depressed you with all of those sad stories I think it’s only appropriate to tell you about the good days ☺.
The best day, I have a lot of those too. The other day one of our students was being asked some questions by a potential donor. We didn’t prep her at all and the person asked 14-year-old Give (her name), “What do you like most about More Than Me.” I wasn’t sure what she’d say? Was it gonna be the food? Her friends? After school rap class? I didn’t know. She replied so sincerely, “They love me here.” The woman who asked and I both cried a happy tear. That’s why we do this. Love. There is no formula to create that yet it’s happening and it is transforming lives.
Other best days are … young kids reading for the first time, the pride when they show me or better yet, their moms, their report cards, an Ebola orphan making best friends with another Ebola orphan and watching them play at recess, when an entire family that we brought to the Ebola treatment unit together all came out together, every single one of them even though every statistic was against them and then seeing, Dede, the mothers face every day when I walk into the Academy because she is now one of our security guards! A good day is a back-to-school jam in a school that has had no energy or support in over a decade, it’s hearing a young girl give a speech in front of her entire community and knowing with everything in me she was born to be someone and now she’s getting the support so she be. One of my favorite days was teaching some girls how to swim and watching one of them, she’s 12, be so determined after everyone else gave up. She is one of our biggest fighters, she’s been that way since I met her at 3 years old. She takes after her mom. I get really excited to see the learning outcomes that our students achieve. Our kids in the public-school network are learning 110% more than their peers. I love it when we open another health station in school and see a child getting treatment. We are making huge strides and our team is so committed. I guess what makes the hard days so bearable is knowing that I have never been alone. There are so many like, Newton, one of our teacher trainers who signed up to support a girl every month (make sure you sign up, too) and Evelyn, one of our school managers, and Krubo, our parent engagement officer, who teaches our parents the importance of education among so many important other things. I’m so proud of the entire More Than Me family that tirelessly gives all they are everyday in partnership with communities, the government and our supporters so that e
Through all the crazy days, what do you do to stay grounded?
I sing, I pray. I talk to strangers. I swim. I write poetry. I watch Forensic Files with my fiancé, Teddy who is so peaceful and loving. Its so strange that that show comforts me. I don’t know if it’s the music or that they always solve the mystery in the end? I talk to my mom or hang out with girlfriends. I definitely eat a lot of French fries, ooops.
When I need to be brought back to the why of why I do this I have a favorites album on my phone and I look at photos of people. The stories are intense but they’re very real and it reminds me of how lucky I am that I get to live my every day doing what I believe I was born to do.
How can people help?
- Follow us on social @morethanmeORG @Katiemeyler
- Become a member of the Every Girl Collective - $11 a month helps us support a girl with healthcare & education
- Invite me to come and speak somewhere with a lot of people or (with less people if you think they can help a lot) email us: email@example.com if you want to help or know more! Or visit our website (watch the videos, they’re amazing- especially Ruth rapping: www.morethanme.org