Katie Meyler, the CEO and Founder of More Than Me, visited Loeb NYC for its summer Speaker Series. Katie shared her incredible, life-defining, death-defying true story of how one 11-year-old Liberian girl was the catalyst for a movement that has resulted in getting 50,000 Liberian children into school. A feat that was almost derailed by the outbreak of Ebola.
Here is Katie Meyler’s story in her own words.
Katie Meyler’s Story
My name is Katie, and I’m 35. My story starts in Bernardsville, New Jersey. I grew up in a poor family, amidst a sea of wealth and privilege. My early memories are marked by addiction, abuse, and a feeling of being different from everyone around me. I found my uncle, dead of a heroin overdose when I was 8 years old. My sister was a crack addict who dropped out of high school and was on the streets, doing whatever she could do to get her next high. I’d already seen a lot of stuff in my life by the time I was 25.
My worldview flipped when I went on a youth trip to Central America. I met children, living under cars to stay warm, without shoes, to whom going to school was a distant dream. I learned the statistic that 80% of the world lives in developing countries. This meant that as an American I was one of the wealthiest people in the world. Suddenly, I realized my own power. I had to help.
I moved to Liberia around 12 years ago. With a Peace Corps-type situation, you apply to work with them and then they assign you. So I got assigned. They say nobody chooses Liberia, Liberia chooses you. I think they thought that I was going to relate well to the orphans living in post-war Liberia. It was a religious group that assigned me, and they were like, “We prayed over the applications, and we felt like we were supposed to choose you”.
The first two months I was there, I was planning on how I was going to tell them that my Grandma died, or make up a story to get home. But then I started liking it. I got used to it. I was taking bucket baths outside. I would just do it under the stars, and it was beautiful.
When I got there I was running literacy programs in a remote village, and I came into the capital city to get supplies and I met kids who were working.
In 2009, I met an orphaned girl living in West Point, a notorious slum in Liberia. Abigail was 11 years old. She told me she was forced to give oral sex for clean drinking water. I asked her, “If you could have anything in the world what would it be?” She said, “My biggest dream is to go to school, have someone in my life that cares about me, and I want a teddy bear.” I couldn’t walk away. Immediately, I bought her a teddy bear and then started paying the fees for her to go to school.
Abigail kept bringing more friends to me. One girl turned into seven turned into 100. I was getting paid 200 dollars a month – I didn’t have money to pay for them. This was the start of More Than Me. I was using social media to help tell positive, hopeful stories and people would wire money to my bank account and I would pay the school fees. Originally it was just friends and family, people who I grew up in Youth Group with, who were wiring me money.
This New York City tax attorney says, “You should really start an organization”. I grew up on government assistance in the United States. No one in my family had ever gone to college, I didn’t think that I had the skills to start an organization. I felt low self-esteem, or that I wasn’t the right person. Trust fund kids or people who went to Ivy League schools are the people who started organizations, not people like me. But my best friend gave me the best advice of my life. He said, “Katie, get the fuck over yourself. It’s not about you.” And I played that in my head over and over again, “It’s not about you” and that’s where the name More than Me came from.
In late 2012, there was this competition on Facebook and Chase Bank was giving away one million dollars to the person who got the most amount of likes. Our campaign was called “I am Abigail”, and it was about how all of humanity is wrapped up in one another. It went viral. We ended up winning.
Around this time I went to Liberia to check on the students we were putting through school and I realized there was no actual learning happening. Often there wasn’t a teacher there, and even when there was he was on his phone or ignoring the class. I asked the community what we could do to change this, and they said we needed to start our own school if we wanted to ensure the girls were safe and learning.
The president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (the first female president in Africa, a Nobel Peace Laureate) invited me to her house. We’re sitting in a gazebo, and I’m like, “We have all these girls in school but they’re not learning anything, what are we going to do?” The community had said they wanted to start a school, I wanted to help them but there’s no space because these girls come from one of the most densely populated areas in the country. And she’s like, “Well if you want to support the community, the government will chip in, and we’ll give you this free building”.
So they give us a post-war, bombed out, looted building for free. We used the million dollar grant money to fix up the building and open the More Than Me Academy, Liberia’s first free private school, for the girls of West Point.
Our school became a top-performing school in the country, it was really really exciting. At one point I did a talk in America, Warren Buffett was in the room and he was impressed and says to me in front of a room of people, “Will you marry me?” So there was the hype of all this momentum. I’m 20-something years old, and things are growing. Then Ebola hit us.
The hardest-hit area in all of West Africa was Liberia. The hardest hit neighborhood in Liberia was West Point, which is where most of my students live. It was quarantined. We didn’t think we were going to have students at the end of it. We had to pivot [from education] to fight Ebola. We had a little clinic in our school, so our school nurse, Iris Martor hired all her friends from nursing.
Along with the community, our students and their parents, our staff fought to save lives in the epicenter of Ebola. Iris Martor and I were named TIME “person of the year” in 2014. We were in the news constantly. And I didn’t really care at the time when they called me and said, you’re the Time Person of the Year. I didn’t know what it meant. I was like, “I just watched a lot of people die”. I was traumatized and I think I’ll be a little traumatized for life.
Surviving Ebola – A Spoken Word Poem by Katie Meyler
Men in moon suits shovel corpses like the rubble. Bodies piled high in the back of pick-ups, crowds across the street keep their distance. The sounds of morning screams are constant. People lie like dogs in the street. The trooper units are too full. Their cries for help go unanswered. The stench of death was mixed with feces.
His soft baby cheeks were against the dirt and dust. There was no Ma whose hand to cup, all alone, in a bath of his own blood. I asked him his name, and he could barely speak. Then softly he tells me, “I’m Charlie.” He reached for my hand but I had to back up, as much as I wanted to hold him, this is an enemy that preys on love. If only I could hold his face, and circle him in a warm embrace, the soft notes down his back they trace. I sometimes weep thinking about what a lonely, inhumane death small Charlie had. It’s sad, and it’s dark.
The death tolls are rising like a tide. Bodies are being buried in mass graves while experts have coffee and have lattes and have debates on the best strategies and philosophies that determine the fate of these communities that they have never even fucking been to. Boots on the ground is what we need, we’re out of water and PPE’s, no bleach no beds and no IV’s, wages or employees. Hospitals are transmitting more disease.
And then there was Esther. She survived Ebola but when she woke up from her coma she learned that her entire family didn’t. She was about to be released, except for there was nobody there to get her. In a country without adoption and with no foster care system, where will she go? And the world leaves her in the hands of the Liberian government that is vividly broken, as you freak out about an outbreak in America that will never freakin’ happen.
I think about the survivors like Esther, all she has lost. But she has life. And I have life. And you have life. And we just use it to our max.
At the Root of a Crisis
The country’s ambulance system had failed. There were three ambulances, two of them broke down and they didn’t have gas for the third one, so we were trying to fix those up and get gas. We were actually able to buy a new ambulance.
We were finding all of these abandoned children who were following the ambulance – not because people wanted to abandon kids, but because their parents were getting treatment and their families were afraid that if they take those kids in, they’ll get sick too. So we made one of our school buildings a place where the children could go.
Everyone was talking about the numbers around Ebola, and they were talking about it as if Africans were not people. I was trying to show the world that these people are no different from your or me and in the end, we’re all human beings. There’s nothing worse in the world than to hear the screams of a mother who’s lost her child, but it was as if the whole world was going to turn the page when ebola finished.
I knew the root cause of why Ebola happened was the same root cause of why young women were involved in sex work at such a young age. And the root cause is really that the country’s systems are really weak. The health system, the justice system to prosecute rape cases, et cetera. There are lots of reasons, but one of the core reasons why their systems are so weak is because of education. Human capacity. When the war happened, everybody in education kind of fled the country, like a brain drain.
The whole time I’m thinking, when this is over we’ve got to figure out how to prevent the next epidemic. I was on a panel with Bill Gates, and we’re talking about how to prevent the next Ebola epidemic. He says vaccinations are the way. I was shaking, I was so scared, I’m like, “I don’t agree with you, you need vaccinations but the Ebola virus will just keep changing and you’ll need another vaccination. What you really need is to build human capacity of Liberians, so Liberians can run the systems that prevent the next epidemic.”
Ebola made me realize that our students would never be safe if Liberia wasn’t stable. Illness could devastate communities, war could break out. Basic systems needed to be rebuilt, starting with education. We supported the Ministry of Education in creating a plan to rebuild the entire education system. This became the largest education reform in the world, a public-private partnership called LEAP: Liberia Education Advancement Program.
Disruption and Sustainability
LEAP is in year two of a three-year pilot program and the results have proved it to be the fastest, most significant and widespread of any education reform effort to date. There are 7 partners running 200 schools with 50,000 kids in them. My goal is that we run 20% of schools with primary kids, and our partners would run the remaining 80% so that every one of our kids will get access to quality education. Teachers are covering academic content 73% of the time, compared to 52-64% in places like Mexico, Brazil, Peru, and Colombia. More Than Me currently operates 18 public schools with plans to grow to 500 schools, and include 20% of Liberia’s children by 2022.
More Than Me as a Startup
More Than Me started as one school, similar to a small, local business and has evolved into a high growth, scalable organization. In many ways we are identical to a high growth business startup, except our bottom line is learning outcomes and safety for children, not capital. Our investors look for returns on impact for their investment, and with every investment, we drive towards sustainability. As we scale, we seek bigger investments and designing bolder strategies.
Our organization has two customer bases: one, the children and families we serve, and secondly, you – the individuals who recognize injustice in society and accept responsibility to act.
We have startup costs of $20,000 for each school, but our costs reduce each year as we partner with the local community. Currently, our cost for ongoing services is $132 per student. And we get real results. The values upon which we run the school are; being positive, being relentless, embodying love, and our team in Liberia really liked the word “honest” better, but I really encourage an environment of being radically honest. Tell us the truth about what’s working, what’s not working on our team.
The end goal is that the country doesn’t need us anymore. There’s a lot of questions around the exit strategy. We’re a non-profit but we’d actually start making money at our 101st school. The money that we make would then be reinvested back to help strengthen the country.
As the founder and CEO of More Than Me, a woman, a person without the accepted pedigree for international development, and someone who pushes the boundaries of what is considered possible, I’ve faced a fair amount of adversity. There have been challenges that might have crippled me out of fear or tumbled the organization, but I have a profound commitment to the girls that I started this organization for. In the moments of despair, I seek guidance and inspiration from their resilience and brilliance. Here are my key lessons through the stories of their lives.
The Inspiration: I met Janet in West Point in 2012. She walked up to me, gave me a hug, and told me she wanted to go to school. Now, Janet is in 6th grade, Vice President of the Academy, and recently she met former President and Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Janet told Ma Ellen, as she is called in Liberia, that she dreams of following in her footsteps. Janet ended up receiving a presidential escort back to West Point with President Sirleaf, and upon getting out of the car, said, “Thank you for the ride. I am Janet, Vice President of More Than Me Academy. Remember me.” and walked back into her community beaming.
The Lesson: I channel this boldness every day. I sit down with billionaires, ministers, and leaders in international development. I could come up with a million reasons why I am not the authority, but instead, I think of Janet, how More Than Me is helping her dreams come true, and our track record of success. I walk in with confidence that More Than Me is doing the impossible and everyone who believes in education for every child should get on board our rocket ship.
This is Bigger Than You
The Inspiration: Sarah died during Ebola. She was a strong little girl who I took to the Ebola quarantine center. I gave her a phone and two teddy bears. I looked into her eyes and I told her that she was going to be just fine. She walked down that dark hall and never came back out. Her death still haunts me, but this tragedy and the thousands of others lives lost during Ebola drive me forward and make me think and act bigger. Ebola made me realize that our Academy students would never be safe until Liberia itself had the human capacity to rebuild the basic systems – health, justice, education.
The Lesson: Sarah’s death forced me to think bigger, to think about systems change, and to do everything I could to make it happen. The result is a public-private partnership with the Ministry of Education. 50,000 kids are now in quality schools. The teaching is exceeding countries like Brazil, Mexico, and Peru, that are far further along in development than Liberia. We are changing lives, and I will continue to work with everything I have in memory of Sarah to ensure children are equipped to lead their countries to a safe, prosperous and peaceful future.
The Inspiration: I met Precious during the Ebola outbreak. Her immediate family died and she was living with her auntie. When I met her in West Point she was sobbing. She was devastated her family was gone and scared that she would not get to finish school because her aunt could not pay school fees. We enrolled her at More Than Me Academy.
Precious is now our top student. She studies every night and helps other students by tutoring them in West Point. When she doesn’t know something she asks more questions and doesn’t stop until she understands it fully.
The Lesson: Starting More Than Me at age 25, I’ve had to learn a lot on the job. When there is a new challenge, I seek guidance from others, read, and research. I recognize where I need to grow and study hard to get there. We are seeking bigger investments from different types of funders that are more interested in ROI and sustainability plans, so I am striving to acquire the skills, knowledge, and pitch to secure these bigger, game-changing investments for More Than Me, for Precious and all the children we serve.
What Can I do?
Part of my goal is to get everyone on board our rocket ship. I don’t care if you give $11 or bankroll us to sustainability in West Africa, but do something. You can make sure there are more girls like Janet and Precious, whose genius and boldness can be discovered, grown, and shown to the world. Get on board with us: everygirlcollective.org