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Meet Katie Meyler, saving Liberian girls from exploitation

Our Foot Soldier this week is Katie Meyler, 30, whose international activism began with a self-financed trip to volunteer in Central America.

Our Foot Soldier this week is Katie Meyler, 30, whose international activism began with a self-financed trip to volunteer in Central America. Katie is the founder of the nonprofit organization More Than Me, which strives to increase educational opportunities for young girls in Liberia. I had the chance to talk with Katie about how she began doing international volunteer work, and what is next for More Than Me.

Lorena Ruiz: Tell me a bit about yourself.

Katie Meyler: I actually grew up poor in a really wealthy community. Well, I considered myself poor. My mom was a single mom of three, working overnight shifts at a factory making minimum wage. I thought I had a really hard life. There were drugs and abuse. I found my uncle who had died of a heroin overdose when I was eight…our family was pretty rare in this town. No one in my family had gone to college. I didn’t think I would go to college; I didn’t think I was smart enough.

For me, my life started to change when I started going to church my freshman year of high school and was really involved with my youth group. It was really good for me; it took me out of my own life, my own head. When I was 17, my youth group was going on a trip to Haiti, and I didn’t have enough money to go, but I heard you could fundraise. That was really the first exposure I had. Because of political unrest I was in Central America instead of Haiti, but there were similar things going on. Kids sleeping under cars to keep warm, people not having clean drinking water, kids not having shoes…Someone told me that 88% of the world lives in developing countries or in poor countries, and I realized I’m actually not poor. I always had free water, I always had free school, and I even always had my own bed, with a mattress. And everything switched and I was the rich person, and these kids, in a way, were me, and I wanted to do something.

I was the first person in my family to go to college. I got a Bill Clinton Service Award for having the most ever community service hours in the county. I did my first internship in Bolivia working with street kids. And I fell in love with a little boy named Carlito, who lived on the streets, and his brother took care of him. Carlito was four, and his brother was six. I remember calling home and telling my pastor, "You know, I’m not going to come back. I’m just going to stay here in Bolivia and start my own organization." And he’s like, "Oh no you don’t! You’ve got to finish college, so you can help more people.' So I came back to finish school, and I ended up getting a job with an International Development Agency that sent me to Liberia.

I moved there in 2006. I’ve been there ever since, on and off. My first six months I was living in a remote village teaching literacy programs to adults in a country with an 85% illiteracy rate. So I was living in Liberia, and I would meet kids and we would play and draw donkeys in the sand, and I would throw them in the ocean… And I would look them in the eyes and say, “If you could have anything, what would it be?" And these kids would say, “We want to go to school.” So, I had money to put some kids in school. I was making a salary--not a very good one--and then I started posting their stories on social media, on Facebook, and people started wiring money to Liberia. And that was really the start of More Than Me. I went to my best friend: “I don’t think I have what it takes.” He looked me dead in the eyes and was like, “Katie, get over yourself. It’s not about you.” And that’s where the name More Than Me came from: him telling me that it’s not about you. It’s actually the first line of a book by Rick Warren called A Purpose Driven Life.

So we started working on More Than Me in 2008, writing our business plan. We were working in this crazy slum, and we found partners on the ground, and we met this guy Macintosh who could tell us where the brothels are, and we knew we were safe when with him. People think we’re insane for working where we work. Both Liberians and Non-Liberians. That we work there, but more that we would go there at night and stay there. But I feel very protected and safe. I’ve been living in Liberia since ’06 and I’ve never felt really in danger. Mostly because the crime that happens doesn’t happen against Americans or white people. It’s more local types of crimes. They think of Americans as being there to help. They love America.

One of our girls, her name is Abigail, she started prostitution at the age of ten, and she’s an orphan. I asked her how she got into it. After getting to know her she started opening up and she said, “Katie, I didn’t have money for a glass of water.” They have to pay for their water; they have to pay to take a bath… She’s an orphan, sleeping at video clubs, pretty much she’s homeless. She wanted to go to school. Now she’s in school and she’s one of the top students in her class, she has big dreams. We’ve been able to do this over 100 times. Even the president of Liberia has commended us for our efforts and our service to the country, and gave us a government building that we’ve been trying to fundraise for to transform into a girls academy.

LR:  So you were talking about a new building in Liberia. Do you have a school set up already?

KM: Up until this point we’ve been partnering with other schools and putting kids in school. We pay for tuition, shoes, school meals, and everything a girl needs to go to school. Backpacks… And even when they get sick we take care of them. We pay for injections; we have de-worming programs. But we are now opening up our own school in January–it’s not going to be fully finished–but we’ll be able to have students in it. That’s preschool through eighth grade. It’s really exciting! It’s also in the center of the city, too. The problem is we have two other buildings… we need a middle school and a high school too, so we have to fundraise for that. What we really want to do is have a boarding school because many of them are homeless, and that has always been an issue. They’re doing really well in school, and they come, and they’re on time, and they’re excited to be there… But some of them don’t have a home to go back to. They’re orphans, often crashing on people’s floors, in vacant houses… That’s always been a big issue for us.

LR: How many girls have gone through your program?

KM: We have 108 right now.

LR: So you start pretty young, none of them have gone through high school yet.

KM: Our organization is only three years old, so not yet. One of our success stories is Elizabeth, whose mom is a prostitute, and we started with her in preschool. I put her in school before More Than Me was even an organization, and she’s now in third grade and is a top student. She’s reading and writing, which her mom doesn’t even do. She’s a perfect example, because she has really high standards for herself. Her mom can’t read or write, so Elizabeth reads to her. We’d love (in the future) to open up our school for weekend literacy classes for the parents.

LR: So why girls? Do boys in Liberia have better access to education?

KM: About 60% of kids in Liberia aren’t in school, and 70% of that 60% are girls. So girls are more vulnerable than boys.  There’s a lot of statistics, including from Nicholas Kristof, who is really well known for speaking about these issues. The NIKE foundation and UNICEF both assert that the number one way to reduce poverty in poor countries is investing in the girl. That’s because she reinvests 90% of her income back into her family. These girls have the potential to have fewer children, and she’ll send her children to school, she’ll be healthier, her kids will be healthier… Her children are less likely to die in childbirth, and so forth. We do have three boys in our program because they were there before we became a legit organization and it was just “Katie’s friends that she helps through school.”

It also helps us narrow things. It’s really hard to say no. There are so many needs, and so many people. Sometimes we have to say: 'sorry, we don’t work in that location, or we don’t work with these groups of people.' So many people in the country need help. That’s why we don’t focus on homelessness. Education is our issue. But when you have a homeless girl in your school, it becomes your issue.

LR: So what do you have coming up now?

KM: Well, the school is opening up in January; December is always a big fundraising month with Christmas coming up… We have a couple of volunteers going to Liberia to spend the holidays with the kids. I’m going back in January for the launch of the new school. But most excitingly, we are currently a part of a contest. Chase Bank does these contests all the time where anyone who has nonprofit status can compete for $250,000, and there are other prizes of lesser amounts. We participated last year and came in 11th out of thousands of organizations across the country.  So Chase chose us from that pool of people to compete as one of 25 organizations for a million dollars in the American Giving Awards. It’s going on right now. It started November 27th through December 4th and everyone is fighting to get the most amounts of votes on Facebook. And the organization with the most amount of votes gets a million dollars. It’s all on primetime television. NBC is doing a two-hour special on December 8th, and they aren’t telling us who wins until the cameras are on. It’s a very intense situation. I have hives on my body from pushing as hard as I can these past few days.

It’s so intense. We are really fighting for girls who literally have to give oral sex to have a glass of water at ten years old. It would be different if I didn’t know them, but I know them. It’s not a statistic or a commercial on TV of children standing on garbage, these are my friends. So for me it’s really personal.

LR: So if More Than Me were to win this competition, how would you use the award money?

KM: We would open up a boarding school for girls, sixth grade through high school. We have a business plan that would be able to sustain that school within give years. We would open up a guest house, and teach the girls business and entrepreneurship skills.  They would be the ones that would learn how to do the accounting and learn how to manage… The money that the guest house would generate would cover the costs of the school. It’s opening up a building and opening up a boarding school for a thousand girls. And being able to teach them entrepreneurship skills and sustain the whole thing within five years. Obviously that money would change everything. It wouldn’t just be a hole that it would get thrown down. We would use it to set up a system where we could continue to generate money each year.