Inside More Than Me's small, informal office in Bernardsville, founder Katie Meyler looks ahead to the next steps she will take to make a reality her dream for a school in Liberia, West Africa, to educate girls who might otherwise be forced to work on the streets to survive.
Being nominated for — and then winning a first-place $1-million grant in the Chase Giving Awards on Dec. 8 — brings the foundation much closer to that goal.
The school's criteria for selecting girls is helping those who are in extreme poverty and at most risk for sexual exploitation, Meyler said.
On the night More Than Me won the award in a live broadcast, a tearful and excited Meyler said she will use the money to build a boarding school to educate 1,000 girls in Liberia, West Africa, and it should be in place within five years. The foundation already has been working on educating girls in Liberia for several years.
More Than Me currently supports 108 children — mostly girls, but also three boys — in an already existing school in West Point, an extremely poor area in Liberia, she said about a week ago.
Meyler has taken an interest in the area since she 2006, when she met the children while working for another organization. She said she started contributing her own money and receiving donations through her online accounts of helping to place extremely poor children in school.
She speaks highly of the children, who she said display their own generous spirit in such actions as, "When you give them a cookie, they will break it and share with others."
Meyler, who grew up in Bernardsville and graduated from Bernards High School in 2000, said that she now must maximize the seed money from the grant to establish a school — or actually two — that will continue to educate students for years into the future.
"We want a school that sustains itself," Meyler explained.
One way she said she plans to keep the school going is for students to operate their own bakery, a needed commodity in the area, and to use profits to support further education.
But Meyler also said she is looking to businesses to help support the foundation so all donations can go directly to the girls in the school.
With that aim in sight, she is due to attend a meeting next week in New York with business and educational leaders such as the president of Columbia University who share her vision of poverty alleviation, she said.
Many of the practical pieces for following through on the dream of having More Than Me already have been falling into place already.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia, has given More Than Me's proposal 100 percent backing, Meyler said.
She said the Liberian government has given the organization a contract for a building in town where the younger girls would be educated. The government also has donated land on the outskirts where More Than Me plans to build a boarding school for girls ages 11 to 17, who are at the age where they would be most vulnerable to sexual exploitation, she said.
But Meyler said that she never would have been able to get as far as she had without the support of her hometown, where she said she grew up relatively poor, without many of the amenities her classmates took for granted.
However, as she has said in fundraising presentations such as one early last year at Bishop Janes United Methodist Church in Basking Ridge, she said that when she traveled to countries where people really were poor, she realized that she really hadn't been.
Meyler now travels frequently back to West Point in Liberia, and said she also has a base in San Francisco, but she has maintained her roots in the Somerset Hills.
Local celebration planned
She said a celebration of the Chase Award, with some fundraising, is planned for 7 to 11 p.m. on March 8 at the Westin Governor Morris in Morristown.
Tickets can be ordered online for $75 or $100, or by mailing a check to PO Box 438, Bernardsville, 07924.
Some of her most stalwart local supporters have been Katie and Skip Borghese of Far Hills, she said. Katie Borghese, executive director of Casa di Francesca Home Fragrance and Décor, is on the foundation's board. Meyler said she has received steady support for More Than Me's vision and effort from the Heartworks foundation of Bernardsville and Basking Ridge, the Somerset Hills YMCA, Raritan Valley Community College and many churches in the area.
The students and educators at Bernards High School, the Somerset Hills school district, and also borough officials helped drum up the votes necessary for More Than Me to win the Chase Award's first place, she said.
More Than Me has been reaching out to local students for help, she said. For example, Erin Locker of Bernardsville, a 2006 Bernards High graduate and now student at the College of St. Elizabeth in Morris Township, is now getting involved and can help handle communications. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"I wanted to learn as much as possible from the organization," Locker said last week. "I would like to do something similar with my life."
Meyler said she would also work with high school students. For example, she said that fundraising or increasing awareness about More Than Me could be accomplished by students such as those at Ridge High School in Basking Ridge who must sign up for 25 hours of community service during their sophomore year.
Others who helped, she said, were Erica Duncan, an attorney who she said has help her set up More Than Me as a non-profit and her boyfriend, Josh Tetrick, whom she said reminded her than it was about "more than me" when she felt insecure about following through on getting the foundation launched.
She said she believes that we all have an opportunity to help improve the world in some way, "no matter what's going on in our lives."