Backpacks for Peace: Project Report

Uniting Distant Stars (UDS) completed three months of the Backpacks for Peace Service Learning Project on May 22, 2015. This post includes the project report compiled by Kelvin Fomba, UDS Co-Founder and Country Director in Liberia. This was reviewed with and edited by Heather Cannon-Winkelman, UDS Co-Founder and Executive Director in the U.S.

As we near the end of the Backpacks for Peace training program, we are delighted to have made it this far. We want to extend a heartfelt thanks to all the Uniting Distant Stars partners, sponsors, board members, volunteers and well-wishers around the world for giving us the strength to make this youth-focused project possible in Liberia!
We especially recognize Sundance Family Foundation, African Dream Academy and UDS donors for contributing to this unique training program! Your generous support helped train 20 Liberian youth on how to properly operate a treadle sewing machine and produce backpacks using recycled material with little to no assistance. They have gained confidence and reawakened their creative and innovative spirit.  This program has inspired our youth to be the next generation of nation builders in Liberia. 
UDS Lead Trainer, Charles Mamba and UDS students at work. Photo taken by Rodney Johnson, UDS Volunteer.

PROJECT OVERVIEW

The Backpacks for Peace program recruited 20 children and young adults (ages 12 to 20) from primary to post-secondary academic institutions in the Monrovia area: Russ Wood Christian Academy, Open Bible High School, All God’s Children High School, Assemblies of God High School, United Methodist University, and few more. Both genders were represented with 16 females and 4 males. Our recruits will be referred to in this report as both Trainees and Students.

The training program was divided into three parts: 
  1. First month was learning how to operate the treadle sewing machine and how to join the plastic squares into a workable fabric (similar to quilting).
  2. Second month was focused on sewing the cloth lining to the exterior plastic fabric and making the individual pieces for the backpack.
  3. Third month was teaching the final production process of sewing the individual pieces together to make a completed backpack.
Part 1: This part of training was both wonderful and intensive, because our youth were eager to learn something after being idle for several months due to the Ebola crisis. The training started one week before the schools opened on March 2nd for the 2014/2015 academic year. This was the only time the students’ school schedules were less demanding. They did extremely well in meeting the objectives for the first month. As stated in our first report, all trainees were able to properly pedal the sewing machine and the majority were able to join the plastic squares into strips. The students needing more time with this area were able to catch up in the early stages of part 2. 
UDS students learning how to sew the cloth lining to the plastic. Photo taken by Rodney Johnson, UDS Volunteer
Part 2:  Many challenges were faced during the second month including: 1) The shortened school year created a rigorous academic schedule for our trainees.  2) Training was practically halted during the first two weeks of April, because the students were studying and taking their first period exams. 3) The trainees’ free-time was consumed with completing their homework and daily chores at home. We quickly adapted our process by placing the students in smaller groups and scheduled their training at convenient times throughout the day.
It was during this month, they learned how to sew the cloth lining to the exterior plastic fabric and cutout the individual pieces. Both areas had their share of difficulties. Sewing the soft lining to the hard plastic required concentration, patience and good eye-to-hand coordination to ensure there was no gaps. Cutting out the rounded pieces of the upper part of the backpack needed some precision since the shape and size had to match the adjoining piece in order to add the zipper. By the end of April, our trainees continued to perform well and 80% have met or exceeded the expectations for the second month.
UDS student carefully cuts out one of the straps for the backpacks. Photo taken by Rodney Johnson, UDS Volunteer
An interesting development occurred in the second month. Our trainers gained some self-awareness on how they needed to handle the challenges and disruptions with the training. They also demonstrated their willingness to work longer hours to accommodate the schedule changes. We highly commend them for being patient and flexible, and doing an exceptional job despite the difficulties.

UDS students working at different stages of the production process. Photo taken by Rodney Johnson, UDS Volunteer
Part 3:  During the first two weeks in may, our trainers spent extra time with the 20% needing more guidance on how to properly sew the lining to the plastic pieces. This process is essential to the production, because one cannot make an entire backpack if they don’t know how to sew the individual pieces. At the time of writing this report, 80% of our students are able to produce a completed backpack. Ten students can make a backpack without supervisor while six need some instruction. Our youth have made approximately 100 backpacks, which is one-third of our goal.
UDS Students working on the final production of the backpack. Photo taken by Rodney Johnson, UDS Volunteer
With the challenges and time constraints, we will extend the training two to three weeks more. This will provide our trainees more practical experience with sewing and making the remaining backpacks towards our goal of 300. During the last week of training, the students will complete an evaluation of the program designed by Florkime Paye, UDS Volunteer in the U.S. Their feedback will help us measure it effectiveness and how we can do better in the future.
Charles Mamba, UDS lead  trainer and professional tailor, sorting and counting the backpacks. Photo taken by Rodney Johnson, UDS Volunteer

PRODUCT (BACKPACK) OVERVIEW

There is a growing demand for our backpacks to be sold in the market as people have become aware of our program. This is our long-term goal for this training initiative, because it will provide necessary funding to help sustain itself. However, we have some logistical issues to figure out such as production costs, pricing (both retail and wholesale), and acquiring a suitable site that can serve as the training center and warehouse for the finished products. 

Our youth are involved with determining the next steps to develop the business side of this program. This process will include the feedback from Heather’s presentation at the Acara Impact Venture Review in Minnesota after attending its Spring Institute. She pitched our Backpacks for Peace program on April 28, 2015, to a small audience of business and non-profit professionals. They provided valuable information and ideas to guide UDS as we develop our business model.

Our students are equally eager to start using a backpack for school, especially now that it is the rainy season. As part of graduating from this program, each student will be given a backpack. This will be a great way to market the product, because they have a vested interest with its success.
The UDS students have worked hard in making the backpacks and will receive one at their graduation. Photo taken by Rodney Johnson, UDS Volunteer
The primary recipients of this project’s backpacks will be school children of school we have sponsored since 2012. These will be filled with school supplies as part of our annual school supply drive.

The current backpack is designed primarily for students, because of its smaller size and ability to carry their school books. We still need to test the maximize holding capacity to determine if any changes are needed for its durability. Our team is exploring other styles and sizes of backpacks to meet the needs of the people in Liberia, who rely on public transportation. They need something to carry their personal items during their daily travels, and the backpack is the preferred choice.
This large bag was designed by Kelvin Fomba and made by Charles Mamba, the original co-creators of the backpacks. They felt no other bag would be suitable for the backpacks except for one made from the same material. Photo taken by Rodney Johnson, UDS Volunteer

PROGRAM NEXT STEPS

After this training ends in mid-June, we will take a break to reflect on our successes and areas for improvement. This time will also be utilized to finding support in Liberia since UDS is accredited as a non-government organization (NGO) as of April 30, 2015. Another training is being planned when the school year ends sometime in July or August (date is yet to be determined). This is in response to the number of  youth, who have visited our site and asked how they can enroll in the training. We have received $1,290 by four of our sustaining donors in the last two months and this will be applied to this next training session. 
 

CONCLUSION

It has been a remarkable feat to implement such a program during a national crisis. We first piloted this project at the height of the Ebola outbreak in 2014 with training four youth while developing the curriculum and production standards. We launched the inaugural Backpacks for Peace Service Learning Project before Liberia was declared Ebola-free. We worked with 20 promising youth for three months training them how to sew on a machine and produce a marketable product. 
UDS trainers and students during the evening class. Photo taken by Rodney Johnson, UDS Volunteer
What are the results? Our youth acquired basic sewing skills to where they are not only repairing their school uniforms but the clothes of their family and friends. Our youth gained the confidence in their own ability to learn a valuable trade. Our youth realized the power of innovation by making a quality product with recycled material. Our youth contributed to the success of our training by showing up to class and sharing their insights on how they benefited from this program.

Our team in Liberia is extremely grateful for the continued encouragement, support and prayers that has been given by the generous and kindhearted Uniting Distant Stars community! Blessings to each and everyone of you! 

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