by Emily Bell
Everything was ready. Rice in bags – check. Workbooks prepared – check. Informational handouts on Ebola prevention – check. The More Than Me students and their families waited patiently to receive their care packages. School was closing, and we didn’t know when it would reopen.
“Power class! Form a single file line starting at the library.”
The girls were excited to be getting workbooks, food, basic medicine, Ebola prevention materials, and information about accessing healthcare while school was closed. But would these care packages really keep them occupied for very long? Would they keep the girls safe in the months to come?
Jumping over hurdles is something we at More Than Me are used to doing in Liberia. But I don’t think any of us imagined the extent of the obstacles we’d face to keep our girls not only safe, but alive.
How It All Started
In 2006, Katie Meyler, a 23-year old from New Jersey, got a job in Liberia teaching adult literacy. While she was there, she heard about West Point, one of the most notorious slums in the country. She started making friends with people there and, being a big kid herself, became friends with kids in the neighborhood. Over and over again, she’d ask them, “If you could have anything in the world, what would you want?” And over and over again, they’d say, “We just want to go to school!”
Katie posted their stories on her MySpace page, which was cool at the time, and friends and family started wiring her money. When she started sponsoring more kids in school, a lawyer friend encouraged her to start her own organization. She was afraid she wasn’t enough – smart enough, educated enough, pretty enough. But then her best friend looked her dead in the face and said, “Get over yourself. It’s not about you!” So she named the organization More Than Me.
More Than Me became a 501c3 in 2009, and began as a scholarship program for the most vulnerable girls and young women in the West Point community of Monrovia, Liberia. Over the past five years, More Than Me has been committed to evolving to the needs of its students and their community, including the 2013 launch of Liberia’s first tuition-free, all girls school, the More Than Me Academy.
During our first full year of school, we provided 124 girls in grades K-4 with not just an education, but also two hearty meals per day, access to healthcare, access to a computer lab and library, and a robust afterschool program, ensuring the girls were off the street for the entire day from 7am to 5pm.
Then Ebola Hit
…and everything changed for us. We saw one of our students in the news about the riots in West Point (see above), and Katie knew she had to return and see how we could help. Katie went into the quarantine and spoke to community leaders, who More Than Me has worked with for many years, to figure out where the gaps in the Ebola response were so that More Than Me could work quickly and effectively to fill them.
Filling the Gaps to Create an Effective Ebola Response
We knew that as long as there was Ebola in Liberia, our girls were at risk. So we fought with everything we were made of to end this epidemic that terrorized our children and the communities in which they live. We did this by understanding the pulse of the local people, remaining flexible to respond rapidly to urgent needs, and supporting efforts that have the highest return.
We turned our school into a home base for our response, the Ebola Free West Point Coalition. Our library turned into a warehouse for supplies, the side yard where girls used to play at recess now served as a parking lot for our ambulances.
It worked. The government asked us to expand our model to five other communities in Monrovia. Our ambulance reduced pick up time from 3-4 days to 30 minutes. We supported Ebola orphans, many of whom are now attending school at the More Than Me Academy.
A Bright Light
As the epidemic became more under control, we shifted our work to reintegrating survivors and supporting clinics with resources, while waiting and hoping for schools to be allowed to reopen. When the announcement came earlier this year that schools would finally open again, we were ECSTATIC. Our students remained out of school for seven months, and we couldn’t wait to return to our original mission.
We reopened the Academy on March 2nd for 150 students, about 30 of whom were orphaned or abandoned by Ebola. But we cannot forget what we saw and experienced during the height of Ebola. When the world turned its back on Liberia, we went back in. We saw people die needlessly because of a lack of a coordinated response. We’ve been asking ourselves: Why did this happen? Did it have to happen? And, most importantly, how can we be a part of the solution so that something like this never happens in Liberia again?
Today, we understand more deeply how critical it is that Liberia’s children receive a strong education NOW so that they grow up with the knowledge and capacity needed to handle their country’s challenges head on, and to protect their most vulnerable citizens.
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