As I entered the classroom, 26 girls between the ages of 10 and 18 chanted: “Welcome to More Than Me Academy. We are the girls of Power class, What is your name?” I answered “Marianna” and watched their charismatic teacher prompt the class to spell out my name phonetically as my heart melted. More Than Me (MTM) Academy is a girls school in Monrovia, Liberia founded in September 2013. MTM enrolls 125 girls from a slum called West Point, a neighborhood known to have the highest rates of child prostitution in the country. MTM works towards making sure that “education and opportunity, not exploitation and poverty, define the lives of the most vulnerable girls from the West Point Slum of Liberia.” Because of the 14 year civil war in Liberia, education has lagged for all children — but girls in particular. Most of the girls’ parents are illiterate, never having a chance to go to school while Charles Taylor pummeled the country. As a result, these families are stuck in a cycle of poverty, without the support of organizations, like MTM.

I traveled to More Than Me for my School of Natural Resources and Environment Master’s Project. My partner, a landscape architecture student, and I were tasked with redesigning the surrounding schoolyard of MTM. Tucked between the war-torn buildings in downtown Monrovia, MTM shines as a bright beacon of hope, painted in bright white, pink, yellow and green. However, the yard surrounding the schoolyard remains covered in sharp gravel, with traces of glass and metal shards. Passionate about community engagement, my partner and I decided to apply design thinking to our project to ensure that we designed for the MTM community needs, rather than our own presumptions. Still, before leaving for Liberia, we tried to scope the project to make sure we had some background information on possible solutions. Knowing the limited resources of MTM, we expected that we could offer the greatest benefit by installing solar panels, water catchment systems and a garden, so that MTM could offset its operational costs with renewable resources.

On our first day at MTM, we interviewed Catherine, the MTM Operations Manager and quickly discovered that water and electricity make up less than a percent of their operational costs. Further, MTM did not plan to stay in their current building for more than five years. As a result, large investments in solar energy probably would not pay off. While food made up a larger portion of the MTM budget, there was scarcely enough land to grow enough food for 5 students, let alone all 125. With our initial assumptions so clearly negated, we learned to pivot and listen. Our next week was spent observing the community, interviewing staff, and running workshops with the students.

We discovered that discipline issues escalated over the course of the day because students did not have enough space to play or to relax in between classes. We observed how the students primarily played in the front patio during recess — because it was the only area that offered shade. We were enchanted to see how the students loved the opportunity to perform and express themselves. These and many other impressions helped us realize that MTM didn’t need fancy engineering fixes, but rather an environment that helped them restore and explore.

Community development projects are often fraught with shifting goals and priorities. Yet I think these changes can be seen as positive turns for the project. Ernesto Sirolli, an expert in sustainable development, has a noteworthy TED Talk where he encourages aid workers to listen, rather than advise the people with whom they’re working. When we listen, we can offer more valuable support to communities. While this might change project priorities, we can be assured that the final outcome will be more meaningful and sustainable.

Today, Liberia is splashed across our newspaper headlines. In fact, West Point was quarantined for Ebola for 10 days last week. Yet even in the face of this deadly obstacle, MTM continues to protect its students and advocate for health services. Katie Meyler, founder of MTM, has spent the past week in West Point photo-documenting the impact of Ebola in the community. I was startled when I saw this picture of the main market in Monrovia — completely abandoned. I had seen the same market three months earlier filled with merchant stands and brightly colored umbrellas. While Ebola has been a devastating shock, MTM has not let the situation sway them from their course to educate the girls of West Point. Instead, MTM staff, faculty, board members, and donors have rallied to share ideas for how to further support and protect the girls. Thanks to their dedication and resilience, More Than Me will continue to help Liberian girls gain the self-confidence they need to speak up for themselves, and ultimately, help to transform their country.