Katie Meyler, a 32-year-old graduate of the University of Valley Forge, recently joined FDR, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, Albert Einstein, and Queen Elizabeth II as a Time Magazine Person of the Year honoree.
Time’s Person of the Year feature seeks to recognize a person, or, in some cases, a group of people, who have had great influence over the past year. This year, Time chose to recognize “Ebola Fighters,” including Samaritan’s Purse doctor Kent Brantly, Doctors Without Borders health worker Ella Watson-Stryker, and many others who have battled the disease on the front lines.
Katie Meyler grew up poor by the standards of what she now calls “U.S. poverty.” The family got food at a food bank and her mother worked a near-minimum wage job. Meyler now considers this an American version of poverty; the family still had food and the children were able to go to school for free.
“There were a lot of drugs and abuse and chaos in my family when I was growing up,” Meylers said. “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,” she added. “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.”
With the help of a scholarship, Meyler attended college and was hired by a non-profit to help promote literacy in Liberia. As she helped adults learn to read, she was deeply saddened by the plight of children. Most of them could not attend school, instead working on the streets. Girls as young as 10 were forced into prostitution. Many children begged Meyler to pay their school fees.
“I would cry all night and send text messages to anyone whose phone number I could remember,” Meyler said.
Three years later, Meyler began “More Than Me,” a non-profit that works to keep girls in school. She divided her time between working in Liberia and fundraising in America.
“It’s a little weird,” she said of fundraising. “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,” she added. “I found comfort in reading Mother Teresa quotes. She would say, ‘You are sending money to Calcutta, but do you even know your neighbor?’”
Meyler also realized that poverty comes in different forms. “It is easy to cure one type of poverty by providing schools or meals,” she said. “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.”
Meyler feels safe in Liberia despite the conditions. “The people on our staff are born and raised in the community,” she said. “People know us and they know More Than Me. Some of those drug dealers and prostitutes are parents in our program. We send their daughters to school, too.”
The More Than Me website describes the school as “…the first tuition-free, all girls school in Liberia. Not only do we give these girls an education, but we also provide them with two hearty meals a day, access to healthcare, access to a computer lab and library, and a robust afterschool program, ensuring the girls are off the street for the entire day from 7am to 5pm.”
After the More Than Me Academy was closed due to ebola, Meyler used her resources to fight the disease.
“Since Ebola was confirmed in West Point in August 2014, our story has evolved,” she said. “We have partnered with the Ministry of Health (MOH) and other partners on the ground to get Ebola out of West Point, and then out of Liberia. It’s working! We’ve been asked by MOH to expand our work to 5 other Ebola hot zones.”
Meyler is determined to continue fighting until the epidemic is over. “As long as there is Ebola in Liberia, our girls are at risk,” she said. “More Than Me is fighting with everything we are made of to end this epidemic that terrorizes our children and the communities in which they live. We are doing 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.”
“The past few months have been filled with some of the most intense moments of my life, but they’ve also been some of the proudest,” Meyler said. “I’m honored to be listed next to these truly inspiring people and want to take this time to recognize everyone, on this list or not, who has helped fight Ebola on the front lines.”