A child is born to illiterate parents in rural Liberia. When she is four or five, they decide to send her to live with friends in Monrovia, the capital, hoping she will have more opportunities there. The auntie she is sent to stay with puts her to work right away and rarely provides food for her, but the girl is clever and smart and manages to get by. One day, a community volunteer or maybe a social worker notices the girl selling peanuts or candy or fish; the girl stands out, she is clearly bright. The community volunteer or social worker makes a phone call, which leads to another phone call, which leads to a meeting, and eventually to an interview with the girl and her guardian or maybe even her parents. Six months later, the girl is in school for the first time.
This is a typical story for a lot of the children in More than Me’s program. It is part of our story as an organization- maybe you’ve heard us mention, “getting girls off the street and into school.” Not every child in our program has to deal with being separated from her family or friends, but all of them have grown up in an environment that constantly puts them at risk and where, because of cost, access, and accountability, they are denied an education. Often times, things are often more complicated than just “getting girls off the street”; there is more to the story.
We have written before about the hurdles facing the girls in our program, how success is measured in small increments, but sometimes the most difficult moments come months or even years after that first day of school.
One of the kids in our program was caught stealing. The child was doing well in school, has been with More than Me for almost as long as More than Me has been around, and has a warm relationship with all of us. This wasn’t the first time it happened, but instead of candy it involved money, electronics, and a shattering of trust. The child’s grades have started slipping. As the child approaches her teenage years, she has grown angry and less affable- who can blame her?- but we must do something. We know she can do well in school because we have seen it in the past.
What can we do? More than Me is different than most non-profits because we are founded on relationships. We are not a logo or a celebrity spokesperson or a provocative video. We have pooled together supporters through talks, social media, and small meetings. In Liberia, we know all of our girls personally. We have been to their houses, we know where their family is from, we know their parents or guardians, we know the children’s stories, their hopes and dreams. As an organization that wants to make the most of our generous donor’s support and run an efficient and accountable program, we know we cannot put money toward education if no education is being had. We also know what will happen if a girl is not in school, not working toward something more than selling peanuts or herself, and we know the potential of all of the children in our program.
This question, “what can we do?,” is one reason we are working to build a safe house. Still, that goal is almost a year away, so in the near-term we need something else.
All of the donations made to More than Me go toward a girl’s education. In some cases though, when a girl wants to go to school, but is not doing well and is having issues outside of school that affect her performance in the classroom, we look for creative ways to keep her off the street and make her future bright.
One of the most inspiring examples of this is Abigail, who after running away from home and struggling in class is now in a boarding school and at the top of her class. In other cases, like stealing, we have our field staff jump in. Daily visits have led to vocational training, a new place to stay, and a new direction.
Many of the girls More than Me works with have similar stories, but all of them are different, dynamic, and driven. We are not a cookie cutter non-profit, and we want to provide creative ways to help the girls of Liberia. So many people have given up on the girls in our program; they have been failed in so many ways. Our recruitment and vetting process is designed to avoid future difficulties in the classroom, but we know that our girls deserve a real chance.
Bad grades? Trouble with family? Anti-social behavior? Don’t call it failure. Each girl’s story is still being written. Work-training, boarding school, mentorships, daily visits. By coordinating with community members, our field staff, and parents and guardians, we are making sure that these girls really do get off the street and, yes, into school.
It was a hot day in the slums. Sweat poured down my face, the smell of feces burned my nose as I walked around asking young girls if they had dreams? I met Angel.
She took me by the hand and led me to her home. I met Lucy, whom she called grandma.
Angel is an orphan. Her mom, a high class prostitute, died a few years ago, and her mom’s pimp, Lucy, took Angel in. 60 year old Lucy is the big mama of the slum we work in. When I asked Macintosh, our field staff, what “big mama” meant, he explained she is the women that thieves sell stuff too. Lucy is my friend. She loves Angel. She asked us to help her send Angel to school.
Their lives seemed extreme to me. Extreme living conditions, extreme problems, extreme emotions. I would bring Angel with me as much as I could every where I went. She slept at my house, I brought her to aid worker parties. She met my awesome friend Jessi. She said she’d make sure Angel was taken care of when I was back in the USA fundraising. Jessie found Angel a safe place to live and Lucy agreed to let Angle move to an orphanage. Most of the girls at this orphanage end up going to college. More Than Me staff and Jessie still visit her regularly. Together Lucy, Jessie, and More Than Me will make it impossible for this young girl to fail.
We are more than just a program. We are a family.
Yesterday, was one of the best days of my life. I went with Macintosh (leads program when I'm not in Liberia) to the bank to get money for our kid’s school lunches for the week and we decided to stop by one our student's homes. Princess lives behind the bank with friends of relatives. We were walking back to the main road when, for the first time, I noticed a tall-ransacked building with bright laundry hanging and children laughing with tons of families living on every floor. I pointed it out to Macintosh, he took some pictures while I headed toward the building.
I met Mercy. She is 7 years old and has cerebral palsy. I held her close. I asked her grandmother if I could go inside their home, and she brought me through a curtain in a pitch-black moist room that reeked of mold. I held a lit candle and could see the ceiling was caving. I fought to silence the voices and emotions that were at battle inside my head- I wanted to be fully present with the grandmother and her daughter. I wanted to cry, but for what? This was their life. Were they happy? They laughed. They smiled. They seemed happy. Were they mad at their government, at humanity for letting them suffer like this? Did the grandmother need to blame anyone? All of these questions were running through my head. They were just living their lives one day at a time together.
I had to keep on walking to meet more families. A guy about my age took Macintosh, Princess, and me up the broken stairs of what he told us was an old hospital that had been destroyed in the war. I was really scared the stairs would collapse as we walked. The people we met were happy to see me, and invited me into the rooms that they had made into homes. The building was full of bullet holes, and the families told me the biggest problem was that the roof leaked and the rooms would fill up with water. Monrovia is the second wettest capital in the world and it rains almost every day for at least half the year, mold was everywhere.
I love walking the streets looking at all the cool stuff that Americans throw away that end up for the sale in the market here. I like the chaos, the sun, the street food, I like the smiles of the beggars and even the aggressive business’ women. I bought a new winter hat for a dollar; Princess got a new outfit too.
The day went on as we weaved in and out of the narrow tins shacks in an area that is notoriously dangerous, but a place where I feel most at peace inside myself. Some of our children’s parents are the pimps and the gangsters and they watch out for me. Now that we have 100 students in a place where words spread like poison ivy people know the crazy white girl, her friends, and her camera are there because they love children.
The sun was going down and I saw people crowded around a candle weeping, someone’s new born baby died.
I try my hardest to feel what people feel. I wonder how life would be if I owned nothing but the shirt filled with holes on my back. If my mom or sister was sick and I was powerless to help them because we lived on less than a dollar a day, which we sweat in the hot sun laboring to fight for. Would I be able to love as loud as these people do? Would I have half the resilience, peace and joy?
In the face of big problems, the real joys in life seem simple. They are all around, sometimes in places you would never expect. Why do we make it so complicated?
Abigail has been a student that many supporters are familiar with.
Abigail´s mom was a high-class prostitute. Abigail's mother would often carry baby Abigail around with her when she went out with friends. After her mother died, Abigail was passed around from family to family, moving around to whomever would agree to watch her.
MTM met Abigail a year ago in the middle of last school year. She always wanted her photo taken. She wanted to go to school, but More than Me had already allocated funds for the year and when we looked at our financial situation we knew we couldn't swing it. We put her on the waiting list. We later found out that she joined some girls at a video club, and was sleeping with men for money. She was 11.
Around this time we found a contest. The prize, $1,000. Winning would guarantee money for school for Abigail for four years and get her off the streets. We asked our friends and fans to vote. You did. We enrolled Abigail in school shortly after the contest.
But then, she vanished. No one knew where she went and no one seemed that upset about it. Abigail is an orphan who lived with a guardian. The woman she was staying with, someone she has known for a long time, gave her a dollar to buy laundry soap, Abigail bought food instead; she was hungry. Abigail later recounted that she knew she would be beaten if she returned without the soap. So she ran.
The police found her and brought her "home" this summer. She started selling herself again. She does not have money to buy food or clothes. By using her body as a commodity, Abigail could provide for herself. With girls like Abigail, putting her in school is not enough to empower her. We asked Abigail what she wanted. She answered, someone who cared for her, a decent place to live, clothes, school, and a teddy bear.
More Than Me contacted a local safe home, THINK, for girls who have been sexually exploited. They have very limited space, but because of Abigail’s extreme circumstances they agreed to take her in.
THINK runs a 9 month program, mostly for older girls, which includes accelerated school, vocational training, and the opportunity to live in a safe home environment. Abigail left yesterday, and she was so excited! She wants a new life. We will bring her a teddy bear the last Sunday of this month when she is allowed to have visitors.
Abigail isn't alone. MTM is dedicated to finding the best solution for each child. It isn't always going to be school or a weekly recreation program.
We are at the beginning of the school year and are closely monitoring the progress of all 100 of our girls enrolled in school. Help keep them in school by committing to donate. .96 cents a day = a girl in school for a year with school lunch and all the supplies she needs.
Even if you can't donate money right now, there are so many ways you can help.
Join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter:
Just liking or sharing our message means you are supporting change and empowering girls. Thank you for making a difference.
At some point, in the City of Bedford, Texas, a person called Sydney S. received a neon-green backpack. Like most people who get free promotional backpacks, Sydney S. probably used it for a little while, at least enough to write his or her name on it, and then moved on to something new or different. If you have ever run a 5k, been to a blood drive, or attended community event sponsored by a radio station/bank/politician there is a chance you have received a bag like Sydney S.’s.
But what happened once Sydney S. didn’t want the bag anymore?
Well, the neon-green bag, along with pounds and pounds of clothes, shoes, backpacks, and other items that are donated to Goodwill, to clothes drives, and dropped off at thrift shops, eventually found its way to Liberia.
Last week, the More than Me team woke up early, went to the West Point Women’s office, and packed 100 backpacks with notebooks, pencils, pens, pencil sharpeners, underwear, socks, and crayons.
Packing the bags was as entertaining as it was invigorating; each bag seemed to have its own story, and each one of our girls was starting a new chapter in that tale.
Word travels fast in West Point: by the time we were ready to meet with our 100 girls and take some last minute information (we had already conducted a more thorough survey with the children and their parents or guardians), the street outside the West Point Women’s office was teeming with children and adults. People began selling goods in front of the office, hoping to cash in on the sudden crowd, and not even a brief rain stopped people from showing up.
We brought the girls in by twos, to avoid a backpack bumrush, and let them pick their own bags. 100 girls, 100 bags, and 100 different tastes and styles. Some girls went for the big, pink bags with pictures of Disney characters; others went for the old bags sporting logos for teams they likely had never heard of . And one of our girls, Bendu, dug through the pile and picked up a neon green bag from Bedford, Texas.
Forgotten items are building futures in West Point. Sydney S. probably never imagined that the free neon-green bag he or she had all those years ago would now be proudly worn every day by a girl going to school for the first time. Now, Bendu, and the other 100 girls, are equipped to not just attend school, but participate, take notes, and contribute.
More than Me loves to promote the fact that we are an organization of people coming together, with whatever skills we might have, to change lives. Sometimes, though, people are helping without even realizing it.
Last week, in West Point, Monrovia, a girl named Bendu received a neon-green bag that used to belong to someone named Sydney S. in Bedford, Texas. This is just the beginning of Bendu’s story.
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Combined with other sources of funding, this project raised enough money to fund the outlined activities and is no longer accepting donations.
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