Katie Meyler, one of our past Foot Soldiers, was featured on Melissa Harris-Perry last year for founding the organization More Than Me, and her work to increase educational opportunities for young girls in Liberia. She’s currently preparing for the opening of their first school in Liberia. The school offers a completely free education from preschool to fifth grade for girls who live in West Point, a township in the Liberian capital. Meyler hopes in the future to open a high school for the students to continue their education.
What’s new with your organization More Than Me?
We’re opening up an all-girls academy in Liberia for young girls who are at risk of child prostitution. Our academy is opening on Sept. 7. Our academy will be able to serve 240 children. We’re bringing a group of eight fellows over to Liberia. We’re still actively fundraising. We still need to build a playground, and we want to build a computer room. Right now we just have the basics. The girls are so excited they come to the school, where the construction is almost finished. One of the construction workers told me that the girls show up all the time to check up on them and see how they’re doing. They know it’s their school.
The school is definitely going to be a beacon of light. It’s a beautiful building; there’s space, we’re going to have clean drinking water, which the kids don’t have any clean drinking water at their house. On top of that, we’re really pressing these girls, and preparing them to be the future leaders of Liberia. More Than Me is not solving all of the issues in the country–it’s the third poorest country in the world, with very little infrastructure – but we believe that by investing in these girls we are investing in the future of Liberia and in solving these problems, that these girls will have a seat at the table to help make decisions for a better Liberia.
What is the admissions process for the academy? Who can attend this school?
Well, right now we still have the same 108 girls we have already been working with. We’ve selected these girls based on specific criteria that we’ve come up with. We were looking for the most vulnerable girls. Some of them have been involved in sex work themselves, as young as ten years old, for a glass of water.
We find out about this through community leaders, so we partner with the West Point Women for Health and Development in Liberia, and they live in the slum, and they chose 40% of our kids based on this criteria we’ve given them. So either the girls have been involved in sex work themselves, or their moms or their primary caregivers have been involved in sex work.
We also pick girls who have either missed school or have never been to school before. A lot of times what will happen in Liberia is that families only have money to send one child to school, but they have five kids altogether. So they take turns, with each kid going to school every few years. Sometimes the girls get left out of those rotations.
School isn’t free yet in Liberia. Although the government made primary school free, it’s not. You still have to pay for your books and your uniform… You pay when you take a test, you pay for everything! And then they don’t have money to pay the teachers, so the teachers don’t show up for work, or they’re volunteers. So we’re offering a normal, working, exciting, inspiring academy for these girls.
What is the involvement of Liberians in the school, besides the children?
It’s a unique program, and Liberia is a really unique place in that – I’m so in love with it, I’m head over heels – in that it’s been very supportive, the government of Liberia has been very supportive, Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee has been very supportive. They’ve already offered our girls five college scholarships, when they’re ready to go to college, which they’re not anywhere near ready yet. Gbowee is a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and so is (current Liberian president) Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
The main way we work with Liberians is through partnerships. We’ve partnered with the University of Liberia, and they are helping us find Liberian teachers to be in the classroom alongside our fellows from the States.
What still has to happen between now and the school opening on Sept. 7th?
Our main priority with the people that come over is safety, to make sure we’re providing a safe space. But we will have a generator, so we will have electricity. Then we have an orientation in Liberia with the Liberian participants.
And the launch date, Sept. 7,is actually my 31st birthday. We’re doing the ribbon cutting, and we will be opening our school!
One of our girls is going to give a speech; one of the moms is coming and talking. We want the opening day to celebrate the girls and inspire them. As they walk up the stairs, we will have painted on the stairs “I promise to make my dreams come true.” So when they walk up those stairs every day they can be reminded that they are responsible for their own futures.