Uniting Distant Stars Academy Update

Uniting Distant Stars Academy Update

Liberia started re-opening schools for students in June. The seniors first came back in June and completed in August. Then the government implemented a staggered system for the rest of the students. For instance, different grade levels attend different time frames to promote social distancing.

To summarize, the Infographic below provides the timeline for the remainder of this year. It shows how each group will complete the 2019/2020 academic year. Also, it gives the date when the new year starts. Thanks for supporting your academic students!

Co-Founder's Giving Story – #GivingTuesday

Co-Founder's Giving Story – #GivingTuesday

My worldview changed when I visited Liberia for the first time in 1998. This small West African Country was praying for peace after ensuring a devastating civil war for nine years. Much of the infrastructure was damaged and destroyed but the spirits of the people remained hopeful.

While we visited different areas in Monrovia (Liberia’s Capital), the people greeted us with warm welcomes and gracious hospitality. The children, on the other hand, showed signs of malnutrition but they displayed their resilience by laughing and playing. This challenged my beliefs of impoverished children that I learned from watching countless commercials of Sally Struthers crying as the spokesperson of the Christian Children’s Fund. 

Children’s Desire to Learn

During this trip, I noticed the desire and hunger of children wanting to go to school when visiting a tuition-free school. It was run by six university students with limited resources. In other words, there were no textbooks, school supplies or desks. Instead, all you saw was bamboo slats on cement blocks and makeshift chalkboard in a one-room building. 

We returned the next day with food for a cookout and brought relief supplies that we carried from Minnesota. In return, the children gave a program of songs and skits. Then a nine-year-old boy stood up and recited the Emancipation Proclamation. He blew our minds and brought us to tears because none of us could accomplish what he did.

The boy who recited the Emancipation Proclamation in 1998

Passion to Service Children & Youth

During the next 21 years, I have dedicated my life, money, resources, and time to helping children and youth in Liberia by:

  • donating funds and materials to support Liberian children’s education and wellbeing since 1998. 
  • volunteering my time while living in Liberia for two separate years (between 2007 and 2010) to support youth-focused local NGOs (non-government organizations).
  • sponsoring children and young adults with annual scholarships for primary/secondary schools or receive vocational training in 2011.
  • starting annual school supply drives in 2011 to support a primary school in Congo Town.

Starting a New Chapter

My giving story took on a new chapter when I and Kelvin Fomba (Liberian National) co-founded Uniting Distant Stars as an official non-profit in 2013. UDS focuses on educational programs for children and youth. I continue to donate needed funds, sponsor 13 children with academic scholarships. And, I volunteer countless hours with communication, fundraising, and other support to further our mission in supporting young Liberians. 

Heather presenting at UDS “Creative & Innovative Thinking Youth Leadership Workshop ” in Liberia in 2013.

I hope you join me this Giving Tuesday on December 3 by making a donation to our Classroom Hero Giving Day. Your gift not only helps a child or young adult learn but also builds their confidence.

Heather (standing in the back) with children in 2013 from the first school UDS supported with school supply drives and scholarships.

Thank you for your continued support!

UDS Academy Opens in September

UDS Academy Opens in September

After a successful first year of the UDS Academy, our team gears up for the 2019-2020 academic school year. The preparation started in July when they opened registration in response to the parents’ pleas. These same parents started telling others about what they loved about UDS and new parents flooded our registration office. Our gratitude goes to Myrtle S Toe (2019 Hotel Management Graduate), who graciously volunteered to oversee the primary school registration!  Her giving back did not stop with registration, she also will be the preschool teacher. Thank you, Myrtle, for paying it forward!

Another part of preparing for the new school year included a teacher’s workshop. On August 31, all current and new teachers attended an all-day workshop. Kelvin FombaNelson Bolay (UDS Academy Principal), and Webster Dayee (UDS Volunteer) provided information on creating lesson plans, understanding the various learning styles, and much more.

UDS Academy Teachers Workshop.

Again, the UDS Academy was started by our Liberian Team last year in response to families unable to pay the rising cost of tuition. The academy is not only a benefit to the community but also our vocational training students who have young students. This allows them to pursue their dream while ensuring their children receive an education.

Thank you for empowering our team to do more to serve the next generation of Liberians! We also welcome any support to help provide more learning materials for the school. 

My Visit to UDS Liberia (Part 2 of 3)

My Visit to UDS Liberia (Part 2 of 3)

by Rita Apaloo, Board Member & Fundraising Team Chair

Rita Apaloo (right)

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.

6th-grade students listening to Rita’s Mom talk (Photos by Rita Apaloo).

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.

Students buying cold mineral water to drink (Photos by Rita Apaloo)

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! 

Liberian children need access to primary level education

Schools started opening this week in Liberia; however, not all children will be enrolled. In fact, “Liberia has the highest proportion of children missing out on primary school education, the United Nations said on Thursday, with nearly two-thirds of its children never stepping inside a classroom (source: Thomson Reuters Foundation News).” This equates to 62% of Liberian children not receiving primary education. As we all know, elementary school is the foundation for our educational careers and without it, we are less likely to secure a livable wage job.

UDS Star Supporters have been delivering school supplies to Russ Wood Students since 2012. They hold all classes in this one room building from kindergarten to seventh grade.

Since 2011, Uniting Distant Stars has provided scholarships to young students, who had no financial support to stay in school. Our sponsors are committed to supporting their students either through 6th grade or 12th grade. We had our first high school graduate in 2014 and two more in 2016. This is one of three programs that UDS supports the education of children and youth in Liberia.

During the 2015-2016 academic, four dedicated Star Supporters sponsored 15 students. Out of the 15, seven maintained an 80% or better for the year and six were between 70% to 80%. We have not received the grade sheets of the two graduates yet, but we know both passed. 

Unfortunately, we had our first drop out this year. This student was in the 5th grade and 18 years of age. Their education was disrupted by the civil war, poverty, and Ebola that forced them to be an older student in grade school. It is quite difficult and frustrating to be an older student sitting among younger children. All attempts were made to mentor this young person this past year to stay in school by their mother, teachers and vice principal, and UDS country director and  volunteers. However, this young adult decided to quit and we had to honor their wish. UDS doors are always open for this young person and we hope they will want to resume their education when they are ready. 

This student’s story stresses the importance of helping children attend school at an early age. In addressing this concern, UDS has added to new young students attending kindergarten through one of our sponsors. We hope to add two more young children as we wait for confirmation from two other sponsors. We currently have 15 scholarship students enrolled and their total tuition is $4,025 for this school year. 

As mentioned earlier, our scholarship program is one way we support education in Liberia. The other two are our learning center and annual school supply drives. The UDS Learning Center allows students to access a library and after school study classes to complete homework and prepare for tests. Our annual school supply drive provides 700 students with the basic necessities they need to take notes, complete they daily lessons and so forth. Sadly, several students are returning to school empty handed because their parents are unable to buy these essential supplies. 

Your generosity is extremely appreciated by the children and youth you serve in Liberia. Also, your continued support ensures young Liberians have an opportunity to achieve their academic requirements. Finally, your investment in the education of Liberian students provides a return of their employability in the job market or ability to start a business. 

Our 6th Annual School Supply Drive is about to end but there is still time to donate, share and encourage others to support Liberia’s young children. Click here for the different ways to donate or share this post on your social media sites. Remember #EducationMatters. Thank you!!!