Time Magazine Person of the Year Katie Meyler heard warnings that “nothing good ever comes out of West Point” when she first arrived in Liberia. But, as a self-described rebel, she explored it any way.
“The rawest form of humanity smacks you in the face. It attacks your senses,” Meyler said. “There’s a wedding going on and there’s people rejoicing and singing and it’s so beautiful that it moves you forever. But then there’s people weeping because there’s a funeral..and people are mourning so deeply that it pierces your bones. And it’s all happening at the same time.”
This love for the people of West Point led Meyler to establish More Than Me, an academy for girls in danger of being sexually exploited in that area.
But when the Ebola outbreak hit West Point, the organization’s mission shifted. If there were no students alive, there was no academy.
Meyler spoke about combating Ebola and founding More Than Me on March, 19 at her alma mater, Raritan Valley Community College.
Meyler said the Ebola outbreak was difficult to fight in Liberia because of the country's broken infrastructure. This dates back to the Liberian Civil Wars from 1989–2003. Before the wars, Liberia had over 2,400 schools. After, only about 480 remained.
The treatment units Meyler worked at had no water, which is the most important resource to treat someone with Ebola. But that didn’t mean there was no water in the country.
“It was that the person handling the logistics didn’t put an order in,” Meyler said. “I would see warehouses of water…But this would require critical thinking skills and that person didn’t have any.”
The More Than Me Academy soon became a base for Ebola response. The library turned into a warehouse for supplies. The yard where girls played at served as a parking lot for ambulances, which transported 262 Ebola patients and reduced pick up time from 3-4 days to 30 minutes.
Meyler eventually spent two days in a treatment unit for having symptoms of Ebola. Through this, she still made donor calls.
Meyler believed her relationship with Liberians would bridge the gap with foreigners who were trying to help but did not know how to. “Even if I did get Ebola and even if I die, at least I lived for what I believed in.”
As of now, Liberia has been declared Ebola free but neighbors Sierra Leone and Guinea are not and pose a threat for another outbreak.
A sustainable model
Although Ebola funding is “out the ears,” Meyler said, she believes the money is spent on the wrong cause and has to go toward a sustainable model.
“You can’t build a healthcare system or any other system until you have education,” Meyler said. “I would like to eventually be able to walk away from the academy and not have to worry about anything.”
Doing this will take time. Liberia only has a 15% literacy rate and there are no qualified teachers—by United States standards—in the area.
Meyler hopes that technology can circumvent that problem. Since Liberia has little access to the internet, one idea is to download information and lessons to a server. Another is using video. Student responses to technology will be studied, and whichever approaches work the best will be implemented throughout the rest of the country.
Meyler said she spends about half of the year in Liberia and the other in the United States fundraising and building relationships with wealthy people who can donate.
She said the most sustainable way to raise money is through monthly pledges. “Four million for Libera” is a campaign idea Meyler has to get four million people to donate four dollars per month to rebuild Liberia’s education system.
Funds for More Than Me will go to “inventing solutions.” Meyler says this means not every idea will work; but some will.
Enactus, a student organization of business leaders at RVCC, also believes sustainability is essential to an organization. “It’s all about getting people in a situation where they’re empowering themselves,” said Jack Ayer, President of Enactus.
Members of Enactus spoke to Meyler at a luncheon about their projects, such as Big Dan’s Bike Shop, and ways they could work together. Meyler invited Enactus to help out in More Than Me and share their solutions.
Meyler left RVCC with a donation of $2,000 from student clubs/organizations and $3,000 from faculty/staff. Student Government voted More Than Me as their Global Outreach Partner for the 2015-16 school year and pledged to double that amount by the end of the academic year. Steve Kaufman, chair of the Humanities, Social Sciences & Education Department, led the faculty fundraiser.
Meyler describes her childhood in Bernardsville, NJ as difficult. Her mother worked an overnight shift in the Lipton tea factory in Flemington, NJ making minimum wage, and at eight years old she found her uncle dead of a heroin overdose.
“I remember thinking that if there is a God, he’s really mean. Because everybody around me gets to go on vacation and gets nice clothes…and my mother is crying at K-Mart when she has to pay my back-to-school clothes.”
Her escape was through a church youth group, where she went on trips to New York City and played guitar “like Phoebe from Friends.” At age 17, Meyler went to Haiti with the group and realized, “I’m actually the wealthy Bernardsville person.”
College, Meyler said, was not a topic talked about at home because nobody in her family had gone. “I never thought I was smart enough or good enough to go to college. But RVCC was a really good step because it was affordable and showed me I could do this.”
After graduating from college, Meyler worked for an international aid organization. They sent her to Liberia, where she found girls as young as 11-years-old forced into a life of prostitution because they had no money to survive.
To solve this, Meyler got the community together in West Point to start their own school, despite not knowing how to do this. After talking to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia, she was given a broken down building to use. Through contests and donations, she got enough money to turn the building into a school.
Meyler was initially unsure of starting an organization because of personal insecurities like beauty and professional qualifications.
This changed when her best friend Josh said, “Get over yourself. It’s not about you.”
That’s when Meyler conceived the name “More Than Me” and realized there is a bigger picture to helping others beyond one's self.