JUDY WOODRUFF: The West African nation of Liberia has had more than its fair shares of challenges, a 14-year civil war and an Ebola epidemic that left nearly 5,000 people dead.
But on a recent trip, special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro found one American woman trying to help the country rebuild, focusing on young girls.
It’s part of Fred’s series Agents for Change.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Thirty-four year old Katie Meyler is a well-known figure in West Point, one of the poorest slums in Monrovia.
With a freckled face, strawberry blonde hair, combat boots, and a dress, she stands out. But Meyler feels right at home here, and there’s no greater proof of that than her decision to remain here during the Ebola epidemic that ravaged the city two years ago.
The virus took thousands of lives. Most outsiders who weren’t medical personnel were evacuated, including journalists. Meyler filled that void with regular social media posts and interviews.
KATIE MEYLER, Founder, More Than Me Academy: I’d rather die at 30 years old, or 32 years old, living for what I really believe from head to toe in every single way possible than to live to be 90 years old and not really fulfill what I was born to do.
Benu is actually number 1 in her classes.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: For the past 11 years, Meyler has made young women like Benu her cause.
She is the founder of the More Than Me Academy, a private school which provides free education for kindergarten through sixth-grade girls, and then scholarships for them to go on to high school.
Most of the girls come from large families and would normally be selling food and water in the streets, or something worse. Meyler says the extreme poverty in Liberia leads to particularly insidious behaviors.
KATIE MEYLER: How bad when you’re trying just every single day to get a cup of rice to stay alive?
You know, I’ve seen and heard and know of mothers that have ended up prostituting their own children just to survive, and it sounds horrific to anybody on the outside. Of course. How can a mother do that? But how could a mother let her daughter die, too?
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Meyler’s passion for social justice began more than 20 years ago as a teenager in suburban New Jersey, where she was raised by a single mother. Often, the family was dysfunctional, she says. Often, they had to go on welfare. Meyler says she found solace at her church.
KATIE MEYLER: It felt good to help others, and it helped me get out of my own things that were going on in my life. So, I got addicted to really making other people happy.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: She went on to graduate from college, the first in her family to do so, and took a paid internship with the charity Samaritan’s Purse, which assigned her to Liberia.
KATIE MEYLER: I didn’t know where Liberia was on a map, and I Googled it.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: So it was meant to be for six months?
KATIE MEYLER: Yes.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: It’s been 11 years.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: What happened?
KATIE MEYLER: There’s a saying that nobody chooses Liberia, that Liberia chooses you. I think part of it is, you come here and you see the amount of need the place has, and the people are very warm and open, and you can make a big difference here.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: She saw a need for education. Ten years ago, more than half of all primary school-aged children didn’t attend, collateral damage from this country’s 14-year-long civil war.
So, Meyler began raising money, at first mostly through her church for scholarships. But she quickly became disenchanted with the existing schools.
KATIE MEYLER: They’re not really learning anything at school, because the teachers don’t come on time. Even — both in public and private schools, it’s very rare that teachers show up and they are accountable.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Meyler decided she had to start her own school, so she raised money from both small and large donors in the United States, purchased a building, and hired teachers.
The school provides breakfast and lunch, medical services, and after-school programs. There’s a strong emphasis on empowering girls to stand up against sexual abuse. The school can accommodate 180 students. Hundreds more wish they could attend.
We met one of them on our trip to West Point.
KATIE MEYLER: But she stopped in third grade from going to school because her family doesn’t have any money.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: What can you do for a child like this?
KATIE MEYLER: So, unfortunately, our school only has 180 spots, and so, at this point, we don’t have any space.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: And her students are still playing catchup. Ebola shut down all schools in Liberia for a full year, a period when educating girls took a back seat to saving their lives, she says, even as she feared for her own.
KATIE MEYLER: What defines you the most is what you do despite your fear. And so I was extremely afraid. I had — I signed my power of attorney away before I left, just in case something happened. There was a real, legitimate concern that I might not return home.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: She had to bribe her way into the West Point neighborhood where most of her students live. It had been quarantined and, she discovered, had virtually no health services or equipment. She raised money to buy ambulances and medical supplies and turned her school into a disaster response center.
KATIE MEYLER: Our plan was, do everything you can to keep everybody alive, and then when you can’t do anything else, bring dignity in death, so we did a lot of that, too, like singing to people, praying with people while they died.
Children that were dying outside, some of them were just laying outside of the overflow center. The ones inside were actually worse off, because they were the dead mixed with the living all there. And they could barely move, barely could speak.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: How do you recover from that?
KATIE MEYLER: I don’t want to get over this, because we have to do something to make sure it doesn’t happen again. I think that remembering and feeling what it felt like and to see that national emergency, it motivates me and fuels me to fight to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Meyler believes one of the main contributors to the Ebola crisis was the lack of education, so she went to the government to propose that some private groups be brought into overhaul the system.
A pilot project began this past fall using seven different organizations to revamp 94 schools. More Than Me was put in charge of six of those schools. We met up with Meyler at a back-to-school celebration in the rural village of Bogbeh.
KATIE MEYLER: Most of the parents and the community members here don’t read or write and didn’t have basic education.
So, they’re really excited that out of 2,750 public schools in the country that really aren’t functioning, barely functioning, if functioning at all, that their school was selected among a few.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Meyler and her staff have helped oversee school repairs, the development of new curricula and installation of teacher trainers at each of the six schools.
The attention she earned during the Ebola crisis, including being named a “TIME” magazine Person of the Year, has opened the doors to philanthropists.
Meyler hopes to raise $25 million over the next five years to expand to 500 schools. But, ultimately, she hopes the partnership project is so successful that the private partners can relinquish their roles.
KATIE MEYLER: Our goal here is to go out of business.
I mean, I can tell you, for us, we’re successful when we’re not needed anymore. We’re successful when Liberia’s government can run these schools, and the teachers are at capacity, and Liberia doesn’t need to have all these — the external support. And that’s what we working toward.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: While she hopes to go out of business in a more prosperous future Liberia, for her own future, Meyler says she has no plans to leave her adopted country.
For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Fred de Sam Lazaro in Monrovia, Liberia.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And Fred’s reporting is a partnership with the Under-Told Stories Project at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.