Katie Meyler thought she grew up poor. Her mom made slightly more than minimum wage, and her family got food from a food bank. But, says Meyler, "That was U.S. poverty. There were government programs, like food stamps, and going to school was free."
After graduating from college on a scholarship, Meyler was hired by a not-for-profit to work in Liberia as part of a literacy project. As she was teaching adults to read, she met kids who asked her to pay their school fees. She realized that if the kids weren't in school, they were on the streets, and they had to work. For girls as young as 10, that often meant prostitution. "I would cry all night and send text messages to anyone whose phone number I could remember," says Meyler.
Three years later, she started More Than Me, a not-for-profit that works to keep those same girls in school. Meyler lives in Liberia for six months at a time, often sleeping in West Point, the slum many of her students call home. At the beginning, she says, she might have feared for her safety, but no longer. "The people on our staff are born and raised in the community. People know us and they know More Than Me," she says. Plus, "Some of those drug dealers and prostitutes are parents in our program. We send their daughters to school, too."
Katie Meyler spoke to One Thing New's Kimberly Weisul about girls in Liberia, working at Red Lobster, and how Sarah Jessica Parker -- and you -- could help More Than Me win $1 million.
How did you become committed to working with poor people? Lots of people write checks, but not many move to Liberia.
There were a lot of drugs and abuse and chaos in my family when I was growing up. My uncle died from a heroin overdose when I was eight. I thought my life kind of sucked, not just because we were poor but because of the drama.
Then in high school, my youth group did a service project in Haiti. When I got there, I met a little girl who didn't have running water, deep in a village. I realized, oh my God, I'm not poor and I never was. It just really changed me.
Why Liberia in particular?
They say that no one ever chooses Liberia -- Liberia chooses you. The reason people say that is that it's just so intense. There was no infrastructure when I first moved there.
How did More Than Me get started?
While I was in Liberia I met a corporate tax attorney who was working for Lawyers Without Borders. She saw that I was paying school fees for all these girls, and she said, "Katie, you should start your own organization. You're passionate at what you do, and you're good at it."
I went to my best friend in San Francisco, and I said, "I can't start my own organization. I'm not smart enough or pretty enough." I had these stupid insecurities that you had to be a gorgeous girl from Yale with rich parents to start an organization. He looked at me dead in the face and said, "Katie, get over yourself. It's not about you." That's how we got the name More Than Me.
It took eight months to do the paperwork so that we could fundraise. Meanwhile, I was working in Times Square at Red Lobster serving frozen biscuits and seafood to tourists, and I was miserable. But I had no money, so I had to work.
That was in 2009. We were helping seven kids. This past year was really different. We were able to help 108 girls. The President of Liberia invited me into her home and commended us for our work and gave us a government building to use. Now we're building our own all-girl academy, from pre-school to fifth grade. If we win the Chase contest, we could open a boarding school for sixth grade through high school. It would be outside the city, away from the slums where the prostitution is. Then we could help 1,000 girls.
How do you win the contest?
Whoever gets the most votes wins. We estimate we will need half a million votes to win. All the voting is on Facebook, and it's a little complicated. We've built a web site at voteabigail.org to make it easier to vote. It's named for one of the girls we have helped. The contest ends December 7.
We have to win. I am going to start crying. We are the only organization in the contest working with women and girls directly on the ground. Literally, Abigail is in school because we won a contest last year. The money we get will go directly toward the program.
There are a team of people who will make it impossible for us to lose. One of my board members just called and said she got Sarah Jessica Parker to help. We got Pat Benatar. Bruce Springsteen put a note about us in his newsletter.
You work in Liberia half the year, then come home to Bernardsville, New Jersey to fundraise. Do you ever get whiplash?
It's a little weird. We live on one of the richest areas of the planet, and then I work in one of the poorest areas. I love them both, though. And I love the kids I meet here. They really care and they want to help.
In the beginning I was very judgmental of people here in the States. I found comfort in reading Mother Teresa quotes. She would say, "You are sending money to Calcutta, but do you even know your neighbor?"
It is easy to cure one type of poverty by providing schools or meals. In the U.S., our poverty is that someone next door could have a baby and we don't know about it. Or a family goes through a death and we don't know about it. We don't know and we don't help each other. We would help each other if people would be vulnerable and share their successes and failures. Meanwhile we've created this society of people who are living life by themselves.
You can write a check and feel good, but if you're treating everyone around you like crap, that's not okay.
Yes, let's write the check, but let's smile at the woman who we think is prettier than us. Let's include people who are left out. Every day if you feel if someone is sad, say something nice to them.
Could you do this if you had kids?
If I had a kid it would slow me down for sure. And it's really hard to have a good relationship when I'm never here.
One of my board members has four kids, her own company, and a really positive attitude. I can feel it in her: "I want to be doing what you're doing. If I didn't have kids and get married, I would be doing what you're doing." But it doesn't stop her from making it possible. She threw a backyard barbecue and raised $40,000 for us. Everyone doesn't have to do what she's doing. But even if you have four kids and a job and a husband, there's still a way to give back.
If you have care deeply about young girls, are passionate about education, or are inspired by Meyler's story, you can vote for More Than Me in the Chase American Giving Awards at voteabigail.org or make a donation directly to More Than Me here.
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Photo of Abigail and Katie Meyler courtesy of More Than Me