Months ago, I interviewed Katie Meyler, founder of a nonprofit devoted to getting girls off the street and into school in Liberia. I was so impressed by her story, and the magnitude of her efforts to serve destitute girls, that I held onto my notes, intending to write a long feature about her.
The former education reporter in me wanted to collect more data, visit the school, interview students, and see for myself the impact this one passionate woman makes. In short, I wanted to write something that would do Katie’s work justice.
Then Ebola hit and I learned never to put off sharing a good story as soon as I hear it. Below is a Q&A from my call with Katie. (Better late than never!)
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Since our chat, the school has closed and Katie’s taken up another fight for the lives of her girls—this time against Ebola. Today, her nonprofit, called More Than Me, is engaged in door-to-door efforts to educate residents of a Liberian slum called West Point about the virus. It teaches them ways to protect themselves and what to do if they find someone with Ebola-like symptoms. Based on the passion that Katie exuded when we spoke, I’m not surprised to hear she’s directly in the fray, advocating for local people, especially children, and supporting doctors and nurses on the front lines.
Of all of the places in the world to try to give girls an education and an opportunity, why did you select West Point in Liberia?
There’s a saying in Liberia that nobody chooses Liberia, Liberia chooses you. I ended up in Liberia because in 2006 I got my first job out of college, working for an international aid organization, and they sent me there. I went back with a documentary film team in 2007.
I always say it’s the beauty and the beast there. It has the most extreme, rawest forms of life. You walk in and there’s no hiding your humanity. The most beautiful aspects of who we are as people are in your face, with the smiles, weddings, babies being born, the colors, the joy and the community coming together.
It’s also some of the worst of humanity, in that you see a place that society has just left behind or forgotten about or tries to pretend doesn’t exist. It has some of the most extreme poverty on the planet. There’s no infrastructure or bathrooms, so grown men are squatting out in the open on the beach. It’s intense. There are people dying and dead bodies are in a wheelbarrow, because there’s no ambulance. You have 75,000 people living in a community with only one government school. Rape amongst children is the number-one reported crime.
It’s really beautiful and really awful all in one place.
How did you move from putting individual kids in school to founding a school yourself?
The film team left and went back to the States. I stayed in Liberia. I made friends with some kids and was helping them go to school.
A lawyer in New York City offered to set up a 501(c)3 [nonprofit organization] for me and I remember going to my best friend when I came back to the States in 2008. I said, “I’m afraid. I can’t do it. I’m not smart enough. I’m not Ivy League. I don’t have a trust fund. I don’t know rich people, and I’m not a supermodel. How am I going to start this?”
He just looked at me dead in the face and said, “Katie, get over yourself. It’s not about you.” I play that in my head over and over again. That’s driven me more than anything. I felt strongly that I didn’t have to do this by myself and that there were other people who wanted to help. I reached out to them.
I was also learning about the sex industry, trafficking, brothels and how all of that works. It was really disturbing. That’s when we really decided to focus our efforts less on helping random kids go to school because we met them on the street [and] put our attention on the girls who are at highest risk for becoming sex workers and being trafficked.
Did you have any personal concerns about safety moving into this area?
Yes, I definitely did. I lived in Liberia for half of the year for eight years. I haven’t been living inside of West Point.
I never understood where we got this idea of service being a really safe, comfortable, easy thing. I know that it sounds extreme, but I mean it. I hope that I don’t have to die for the things that I believe in, but I would rather die for the things I believe in than live a life that means nothing. It sounds crazy, but it’s definitely true.
I don’t feel afraid. I feel like inner city America is a little bit more dangerous. There are no guns in Liberia. People won’t kill you. They’ll take what you have. I left my purse one time. It was late at night. I was dancing with some friends and I left my purse on a chair. I came back and the purse was gone, but obviously it would be gone no matter where in the world I did that.
The next day, I had to go to the States. I didn’t have my iPhone, which is my life because I do all my work on my phone and my computer. I lost my phone and wallet, which had my driver’s license and credit cards.
Two days later, I get an email from one of my staff members in Liberia. She said, “You’re not going to believe this. I’m in tears. This woman brought back your purse. She’s a prostitute. Her friend took the purse.” She convinced her friend to give it to her because when they opened the purse, they could see my business card.
They gave [the staffer] the purse and said, “If this academy existed when we were kids, we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing today. We couldn’t take from our own children. Here’s your stuff back.” An iPhone in Liberia is like $1,000, because you can’t get them easily. A high-class prostitute makes a maximum of $16 a night.
People are happy we’re there. The community is happy. The government is happy. The president gave us a building. Wealthier Liberians and the Diaspora support what we’re doing. It’s really exciting to be a part of something that has so much good energy and support from every direction.
What would you say has contributed to your ability to create this school out of nothing, without having spent years training and learning about nonprofit management or education?
I would say what you don’t learn in school is the tenacity, the grit and the swallowing of your pride over and over again. You don’t learn those things. You need that stuff. I guess if you have a trust fund or financial support circles or you are a celebrity, it makes it a little bit easier. That doesn’t mean the work is going to get done.
I think it’s the passion to do what you set out to do, because you’re going to be thrown down and criticized. The people who love you most are going to be scared to death. You’re going to be scared to death. I’m really extreme, passionate and charismatic with how I tell stories. I don’t know how it is for everyone, but my friends were nervous for me. They said, “You are going to die or this thing is going to work.” There was no middle road for me.
In my head, I thought, “If I die for this, it’s worth it. Why are there little girls giving blow jobs for water? Why does that exist in the world I live in?” Now I know about it. I know the girls that do it, and I know the people who have money and resources to stop it. I can figure out a way to be connected to people who can help with the program. I can meet whoever I need to meet. I’ll do whatever I need to do.
That is probably the leading thing that has helped me. It’s the passion that keeps you awake night after night or the passion that gets you out of bed in the morning when you don’t want to.
You’re creating something from nothing, so you are knocking down doors when you talk to people. You have to put on your game face sometimes.
From what we’ve been discussing and what I’ve read about you, it seems you have done a great job of aligning your life’s work with your values and the change you want to bring about in the world. What are some of the personal sacrifices or compromises, conscious things you’ve had to decide not to do in order to do this work that you’re so passionate about?
Do you mean like I’m not getting married?
Yes. Is that a choice you made?
No and yes. I feel like my head is so into making sure More Than Me works that everything else — I don’t even pick up my head to look at it. Sometimes when it’s a holiday, you’re by yourself crying. That’s the truth. It’s really lonely.
I don’t have friends anymore. Everyone I know is involved with More Than Me. I’m always looked at through the scope of being the founder of More Than Me. That gets really exhausting. Part of what you give up is your identity outside of what you’re doing. In order to make this thing work, I’ve thrown every part of myself into it.
I literally donated my body to science. I have babies somewhere in the world right now. I donated my eggs to people [to raise money] to start this organization.
I’m invested. You just go all in. I have found very few things in life, if any, where there are not pros and cons. You just have to decide. You learn. With every choice you make, is there more good or bad in this situation?
I feel like with running More Than Me, I am living a dream. I get to travel the world and give everything I am to something I believe so passionately about. I get to push myself places I never thought I could go. It’s amazing and invigorating, but it’s lonely. People judge you. It’s hard. Everything about it is hard. I don’t get off of work at 5:00. There is no 9-to-5.