This post was originally produced for Forbes.
Time’s 2014 Person of the Year was “The Ebola Fighters.” Among the front line people profiled was the aptly described “tornado of energy” Katie Meyler, now 34 and the founder of the educational NGO More Than Me.
Meyler, who says empathy is her superpower, founded the organization while visiting Liberia years before the Ebola epidemic swept the country. She was there doing volunteer work and came across an 11-year-old girl named Abigail who was prostituting herself for school fees. Meyler began paying her fees so Abigail could attend school.
Abigail had some friends that needed help, too. Soon, the number of girls she was helping outstripped Meyler’s meager resources so she began fundraising via social media to help more girls.
Watch my interview with Meyler at the top of this article.
Eventually, a lawyer friend volunteered to help Meyler set up a nonprofit and More Than Me was born.
Chid Liberty, originally from Liberia and now CEO of Liberty & Justice, says of Katie, “We met as she was starting her organization and she was a ball of energy and excitement. You couldn’t help but want to help her achieve her mission.” He eventually joined the More Than Me board of directors and served for several years.
After a time, she learned that just getting girls to school wasn’t enough. The schools were so poorly funded that physical facilities were grossly inadequate–unsafe and lacking even basic educational tools like chalkboards. Teachers, she says, were frequently unpaid and many, as a result, were illiterate themselves.
Meyler says she is not creative. There is nothing remarkable about what she did. The problems were obvious and she addressed them.
Under Meyler’s enthusiastic leadership, the organization built a school for girls. Supporters flew in from the U.S., parents, teachers and students came. The President of Liberia even attended the inauguration.
Then Ebola struck. Meyler recognized that her mission had just shifted from ensuring her girls got an education to ensuring that her girls survived so they could get an education.
Initially, Meyler looked to support the front-lines organizations doing the most good in the local communities. What she quickly realized was that those organizations were stretched too thin. She says a call for an ambulance might bring one three days later simply because there were too few in the country to serve the overwhelming demand. During the interim, one sick person would become one sick family.
Eventually, she organized a team of 500 people. The team received training from the World Health Organization and Médecins Sans Frontières. They did whatever they could to help. “When we could do nothing else, we sang and prayed with them.”
The first safety protocol to prevent the spread of the disease, which was fatal in nearly 90% of cases, was simply not to touch anyone. Meyler shared the gut-wrenching story of comforting eight-year-old Charlie as he died. More than anything, he wanted to be hugged. Meyler says she offered every comfort she could imagine, including offering a lie that his mother had sent her to care for him. His last words were, “God will bless you.”
Meyler says she learned from the experience. “We were waiting for the heroes until we realized we are the heroes.” She said she found out what she was made of when it really counted.
Her Ebola work and the attention it brought have helped More Than Me grow to a 2016 budget of $1.7 million. The organization operates seven schools and has asked the government to open 30 more in the partnership program. The partnership model she helped created, pairs public schools with private partners like More Than Me to operate and support each school. More Than Me hopes ultimately to support 500 of the 2,750 primary schools in Liberia, helping them reach 125,000 students.
Liberty says, “It’s an organization that’s really passionate about their work, so teachers are in class, students are part of something bigger, and school actually functions as an institution. Many Americans probably take that for granted, but for schools serving poor Liberians, teachers showing up and knowing how to teach is basically a miracle.”
The Liberian Government will provide funding to More Than Me for the public schools it helps to run. The NGO will break even, Meyler says, once they reach 105 schools.
Tragically, only a few people in Liberia have had access to a good education. Liberty says, “Liberia is a beautiful country and her people are her greatest asset. Unfortunately, what we would consider to be a great education has only been available to a small minority of citizens.”
He adds that poor education holds back the people and institutions there, but what has been accomplished is impressive at times. “Still, these people are filled with ingenuity and help to build great roads, buildings and entire companies. Sometimes these folks lift the living standard of an entire village.”
Liberty shares Meyler’s vision for the potential for education to improve things in Liberia. He says, “Not only will education help us unlock more genius in Liberia, it will help Liberia’s most ingenious women and men find the support they need to build a great society.”
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