SOMERVILLE, NJ – Imagine if a little girl, we’ll call her Esther, is diagnosed with Ebola in New Jersey and admitted to the Somerset Medical Center in Somerville. This little girl receives excellent care and recovers to be Ebola-free, completely cured and healthy. The doctors, nurses and volunteers hold a party for the girl to celebrate her good health and she is released from their care.
Esther, smiling from the good will and candy she’s just enjoyed, goes outside and sits on the curb, waiting for family to come pick her up. She sits, waits … but no one comes because they are terrified of Ebola, and the stigma attached to it. No parent, no aunt, no uncle wants anything to do with Esther because she is tainted by Ebola.
And so she sits, alone, scared, ignored on the side of a road.
If this sounds unbelievable, you should know that there really is an Esther, but she lives in Liberia on the west coast of Africa. And you should know that her story is not unique there, as the panic and fear about the disease is far greater in Africa than it even is on cable news here in the United States.
Fortunately for Esther, she had a savior. Katie Meyler, a Bernardsville resident who runs the More Than Me Academy to educate girls in Monrovia, Liberia, was walking past this clinic the day Esther was abandoned and took her in. The More Than Me Academy had decreasing enrollment due to the Ebola outbreak in the country, and so Meyler decided to use the extra space to care for Esther herself.
Meyler saw a desperate need and took in more Ebola orphans, and more, and eventually the school to help impoverished girls build successful lives transformed into a shelter for children with nowhere else to go.
Mike Pond, an architect from Somerville, helped build the shelter by converting a building he had been working on for a separate project. Pond and Meyler knew each other from church here in the United States, and Meyler asked Pond to bring his building expertise to Liberia to help build the school.
Pond has three children of his own, Hanna (11), Michael (8) and Emma (6), and he says that he does this relief work, including risking his life working in the middle of an Ebola outbreak, because of his kids.
“The only and best answer I can give why I do this is that if the roles were reversed I would want someone to take care of my children,” said Pond. “I’m trying to teach them as much as I can that we need to do this for other people.”
Pond has built orphanages in poor communities throughout the world, including volunteer work with Engineering Ministries International in Rwanda and Cairo, Egypt and paid jobs in Juarez, Mexico. He first worked for More Than Me in 2011 providing the school with sturdy quality furniture, and Meyler asked Pond to come back in 2013 to build a guest house for tourists to help fund Academy programs.
“I had already built relationships with workers here from working on the school furniture,” said Pond. “So it made it far more productive for me to come back to build the residence than for Katie to start working from scratch.”
Last summer, Meyler invited Pond back to convert the guest house for use with orphans like Esther after the school closed due to the Ebola outbreak, providing them with a safe and healthy place to stay as they await placement in a long-term situation. Pond created areas for children who are symptomatic to stay separated from children who are not.
But even with More than Me caring for 40 to 60 kids at a time, there are always more who need help after losing parents and family support. Once a child at More than Me is asymptomatic for 21 days, proving they are not infected, social workers try to place them with families.
Unfortunately, for many – including Esther – that placement means going to a poorly funded government orphanage that is often not much better than the children’s lives before Ebola. Even if children staying with More than Me test negative or have no symptoms after 21 days, often no one will claim them because of the stigma of being the child of someone who died of Ebola.
The orphanages are severely underfunded, and the staff are not paid living wages. As a result, much of the materials that are supposed to go to the children never get where they are supposed to. Pond said he’s visited Esther at the orphanage a number of times, and brought a few hundred dollars of candy and toys to share with the other kids. But when he goes back a few days later there’s no sign of either.
When asked where everything was Esther answered, “The caretakers took it.”
Pond says that he and Meyler want to bring Esther and many other Ebola orphans back to More than Me to put them in better circumstances.
“She’s in a bad situation, way out in the jungle with a bunch of kids and just one toilet and UNICEF only visiting once a week,” says Pond. “She’s alive, but she needs medical care. Here belly is distended, she just survived Ebola, and she’s getting no medical care.”
Esther’s story is not unique. As the outbreak closes in on 5,000 deaths in 2014, many more children are orphaned and left without resources. To Pond and Meyler, the best way to help these children is to halt the outbreak through education and awareness.
There are many doctors and nurses in Liberia providing curative care for Ebola victims, but More than Me fills the gaps before and after treatment, being focused on prevention and rebuilding lives for those who survive. The schoolhouse is used for storing medical supplies and the guest house Pond first built and then converted is used for the children as they await more permanent homes.
“Katie and her staff are doing work no one else is doing in Monrovia,” said Pond. “Doctors without Borders, the UN and others are working on treating people with Ebola, but More than Me is educating people, caring for Ebola orphans and bringing symptomatic people to clinics for care.”
In addition to helping the children, More than Me is working to educate the public and help symptomatic residents get to clinics and that their family members of patients self-quarantine for 21 days to ensure no one else contracts the disease.
It’s not easy to get through the rumors and suspicion in Liberia. In the U.S., it’s often difficult to get accurate information of the actual threat level Ebola poses, and in Liberia with so much poverty and poor infrastructure it’s even harder. Throughout Liberia people don’t trust the government or the medical system, and many don’t believe Ebola is real or as bad as they are being told. Pond says people will hide their symptoms and go about their regular lives, spreading the disease at work or in markets.
“When I talk with people at their homes they mostly think that Ebola was created as a rumor to keep people quiet, so the government can control the country through propaganda,” said Pond. “They don’t believe it’s real, or that it’s just malaria and the authorities are exaggerating.”
To combat this mistrust, More than Me sends caretakers trained by the World Health Organization who care for Ebola survivors and orphans, and also go into communities to go door to door talking about Ebola and educating families about the need for quarantines and treatment.
“We work with Liberians to go out into the community and educate people, because there is more trust that these people will tell them the truth,” said Pond. “My white skin is a wall, and though many who I work with trust me, people who don’t know me won’t listen.”
Pond says the hardest part of the work is convincing people with symptoms to turn themselves in to clinics.
“The reason the disease is spreading is because people are hiding due to the perceived shame of having a family member die of Ebola,” said Pond. “They just want to bury their dead and ignore the fact that they or someone in the family has the disease.”
It is so bad, says Pond, that sometimes families will just wait for a family member, including a child, to die rather than admit publicly that their home had a case of Ebola. In 2013, Mike witnessed a little girl named Beatrice die because her family did not want to take her to the clinic for treatment of sepsis that would have easily been treatable if caught in time. It’s even more difficult to get parents to take children to the clinic for a feared disease like Ebola due to the cultural stigma.
Pond recently returned to the U.S., arriving in JFK Airport on Sunday afternoon. Going through customs, he notified Transportation Safety Administration Officials that he had come from Liberia, and was allowed to pass since he had no symptoms of Ebola. He was not placed in a mandatory quarantine.
He is not worried about having the disease, but is still being extra careful and not touching anyone for 21 days. When we met for the interview he would not shake hands and only offered an “air high-5.” He says it’s not very hard except for one thing.
“I’ve missed my kids so much while I’ve been in Liberia,” he said. “And I still have 18 days until I can hug my own children.”
Even given the risk and the disruption of his personal life, Pond intends to return to Liberia again to assist Meyler in finding land and designing a residential school for Ebola orphans and survivors. The 10-acre facility is expected to cost more than $2 million and will be able to support up to 3,000 students who have lost family to the outbreak.
If you would like to make a donation to More than Me to support their work with Ebola orphans and reopening the Academy when the Ebola outbreak ends, you can make a contribution on their website.