On December 5, 20202, we held our annual board meeting and elected the new officers. We excited to announce our new board chair Adam Pederson and new secretary Rita Apaloo. Also, Diane Anastos will continue her role as treasurer for the fifth year and Beyan Gonowolo will remain the fundraising team chair. Please click on their names to read their bios.
Additionally, we want to give a special Thank You to Philip Kaleewoun who served as Board Chair for three consecutive years. He guided Uniting Distant Stars in developing their first strategic plan in 2018. And helped ensure we executed some of its goals such as installing solar panels. He will remain on the board as a member.
Furthermore, we want to extend our heartfelt Thanks to Yakasah Wehyee who resigned from the board. He will focus on completing his doctorate program. He served for about a year and a half and greatly helped with writing project concepts. So, we wish him all the best as he peruses his Ph.D.
Recruiting Two Board Members
As we move into 2021, we are seeking two new board members. If you or someone you know is interested in helping us reach more of our goals, please review or share our posting (click here).
On December 14, 2019, we held our annual board meeting and elected the new officers. We are excited to announce Philip Kaleewoun will continue as the board chair for their year; Yakasah Wehyee will assume the secretary position; and Diane Anastos will continue her role as treasurer for the fourth year. Furthermore, Beyan Gonowolo became the new fundraising team chair. Also, please click on their names to read their bios and learn more about our incredible leaders.
Finally, our leadership team will focus on executing our strategic plan to include cultivating partnerships, securing more volunteers, and building our capacity to establish social businesses in Liberia.
Please join me in congratulating our 2020 Leadership Team!
by Rita Apaloo, Board Member & Fundraising Team Chair
The VTC students had completed their training year and were preparing for graduation during my visit. I was able to meet some of the new incoming students on March 25. Many of them were recruited through radio promotions and others were referred by current or former students. In talking with some of the students, I learned that they chose to enroll for several different reasons including learning a vocation, getting credentials for something they have been doing, affordable program, job prospects, self-employment, quality (practical) training, proximity to the center, the sense of family/community at UDS, etc.
UDS instructors were all present to introduce themselves and share some information about their various courses, in an effort to entice the students to sign up with their respective departments. We had a good laugh listening to their persuasive speeches. The students were excited to get started and appreciated hearing my story of how both my parents benefitted from vocational training and were able to provide a great life for us kids by using their skills to build great careers over the years. I also shared about my UDS Board experience and urged them to work hard and become the kind of success stories that donors and potential donors love to support. We are all partners in this work and play important roles in building and growing the organization.
Unfortunately, the UDS Graduation was postponed past my visit so I wasn’t able to participate as initially planned. I also met with graduating students on March 30 who also appreciated my presence and story. After they took care of the business of fees, payments and other details about the ceremony, I thanked them and bid them good luck in their futures and encouraged them to stay in touch. I asked that they keep us posted on how they’re using their skills and learning and also about their accomplishments and successes.
I was honored to meet a couple of amazing students, Elijah Kotee and Gabriel Zargo, who had already found success even before graduation. Elijah completed UDS Catering training. He had a job working at a restaurant and also did independent catering when he wasn’t working for his employer. Elijah was appreciative of his UDS Diploma and said that the diploma was needed to open doors to the kinds of opportunities he would like to pursue. He also completed the Permaculture training program in hopes to someday combine both trainings to prepare sustainable farming food that he grows and provides a healthier option for his catering clients. Elijah has big dreams and more than enough passion to make it all happen. I have no doubt that sooner or later he will pull it off.
Gabriel completed UDS computer training and is an entrepreneur. His business, LifeChore, is an employment incubator that operates in the hospitality and manufacturing industries with the mission to help youth find great jobs. He was recognized during the meeting for having referred a couple of hospitality students from UDS graduating class to a business client. They were interviewed and offered employment at a hotel. He said that his company has helped over 20 youth find short and long term jobs. I was proud to have been a small part of their lives, dreams, and success through UDS. I can’t wait to see what more they accomplish in the future.
Indeed, UDS is making dreams come true, one student at a time.
by Rita Apaloo, Board Member & Fundraising Team Chair
On my first visit, I had the opportunity to see the center being used as an elementary school for kids in the community. I observed them in their shared classroom spaces and during recess/lunch break. The youngest kids (Pre-K) met in the covered patio area that holds the hair braiding training and makeshift salon. Grades 1 – 4 are spread out in the multipurpose room with partitions and the sewing room. Grades 5 and 6 are upstairs in attic-type area.
If you missed Part 1 of Rita’s article, click here.
I later found that one-room schoolhouses are commonplace in Liberia. There are not enough schools to meet the demand. So, these schools are popping up everywhere to provide some relief and the kids don’t miss out on early learning skills. I’m not sure how effective these one-room schoolhouses are and if the government evaluates or supports them. There are no free government schools currently.
My mom and I got to speak to the older kids and answer a few questions from them. They were all respectful, insightful and full of hope. We really enjoyed learning about the school and the students. When asked what message they would like to send to current and potential donors, they were full of gratitude and wanted school supplies and any additional help. They promised to work hard, stay in school and always do their best.
As a board member who has been interested and passionate about the vocational training center and concerned about starting an elementary school and stretching our already limited resources, it was hard not to see the blaring needs of the kids, families and surrounding community. In addition, the kids were so excited and already seem to have formed a community through UDS.
During my visit, it certainly was easy to see the huge economic gaps among the people. I was told by an education industry professional that “schools” have become a business in Liberia. Unfortunately, student success is not always a top priority. I also learned that more and more families are looking beyond academics and are interested in extracurricular activities outside the classroom for a rounded education. As a result, some schools focus too much on these activities than the classroom learning, putting students in a deficit when it comes to learning standards. Many students are also hopping from one school to the next, chasing the latest programming or looking for an easy pass to the next class.
All of these and more are affecting the cost of learning from preschool to high school and beyond. The result is that decent education is moving beyond the reach of more and more families and there are no free government schools to fill the gap. This leaves so many children and families without options. Too many children are put to work to help their family survive or they are left to fend for themselves to survive the harsh economic climate in the country.
Another real challenge to education is access to transportation. Community schools are important to families because they are within walking distance with little or no transportation costs. I learned that some kids have to leave the safety and comfort of home and are sent to live with extended family and friends to be closer to a school, in an effort to reduce or avoid transportation fares.
UDS Academy is tuition-free but UDS requires families to buy uniforms from the center, made by the staff and tailoring students. UDS also sells water to students (an in-demand necessity in the city) to raise funds for school operations. In addition, tailoring is an in-demand skill as educational institutions and businesses alike are preferring uniforms over regular clothing. The trend in fashion clothing made with African fabrics is also a large and growing market for tailoring skills.
It was great to meet and chat with UDS faculty. They are passionate about the work and mission and they put student success at the center of everything they do.
People in Liberia are constantly looking for opportunities to improve their circumstances for the better. The leadership and staff of UDS are no different. Having the center provides multiple opportunities to do more and better. I am amazed at the ingenuity of the leadership and staff in finding ways to do more with limited resources. Is it perfect? Not by a long shot but the challenges are real and the problem-solving and entrepreneurial spirit of the staff is admirable. I see my role as a Board Member to investigate, evaluate and support the efforts of UDS leadership and staff to meet the needs of their students, the community, and business, to help build better futures. Part 3 of Rita’s visit will be shared in our next newsletter. Please stay tuned!
by Rita Apaloo, Board Member & Fundraising Team Chair
On my recent trip to Liberia, March 2019, I had a long list of things to do, which included visiting UDS Center. I encountered many challenges checking things off my list but thankfully I made it to UDS not once but three separate times (March 21, 25 and 30)!
Monrovia and its surrounding areas are not well-planned so there is no specific address to follow to get to a location. People use landmarks to provide direction to a specific location. UDS is located on the Old Road behind the York Plaza Hotel, so I set out to find the hotel. On the way, we (my mom, another family member and I) stopped a young man strolling by to ask for directions. Luckily for us, not only did he know the York Plaza Hotel, but he also was very familiar with UDS and agreed to hop into our vehicle to take us there. He said he had a friend who completed computer training at UDS and he had raved about the school, staff, and students. In fact, our guide had, at one time, consider checking out UDS to further his education since he was a high school graduate but hadn’t decided what post-secondary education he wanted to pursue. I thought this as a great testament to the UDS brand and reputation in the community.
Part 2 of Rita’s visit will be shared in our next newsletter. Please stay tuned!
Please join us in congratulating Yakasah Wehyee as our newest board member! He brings a wealth of knowledge and non-profit experience, having worked with organizations like YMCA and Project for Pride in Living. He hopes to advance our mission and vision with his program management and community building skills. We are excited to have him on board.
Learn more about Yakasah by reading his bio: Yakasah grew up in Minnesota where he attended primary and secondary school in the Minneapolis school district and graduated from St. Francis High School. Yakasah’s commitment to community service developed in these formative years where he served as student council president, organized national night-outs and other community events. Yakasah has continued to advocate and serve the need of underserved populations such as being Community Organizer for All Parks Alliance for Change, Senior Fellow for the McVay Youth Partnership Program, and Senior Coordinator and Program Manager for the YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities. Yakasah earned his BA in political science and history from Hamline University and his MA at the University of Minnesota. He is a current Ph.D. candidate at the University of Minnesota where he studies comparative politics and international relations. Yakasah’s research centers on understanding why dominant party dictatorships rise and fall, with an emphasis on Liberia’s dominant party regime from 1878-1980. Yakasah joined the UDS board in 2019. As a Liberian refugee, he is grateful for the opportunity to positively impact the lives of young Liberians on the African continent through Uniting Distant Stars.