Let There Be Light!

Let There Be Light!

By Adam Pederson, UDS Board Secretary

This past January, the students enrolled in Uniting Distant Stars electrician program assisted in installing the first stage of the long-awaited solar panels of the learning center in Monrovia. With the assistance of Taleance T Tokpah (who was the vendor from T & T Solar Tech and a technician himself) guiding them along the way, our students were able to bring the learning center to a new level of independence where it will not rely as heavily on the city’s unreliable grid nor a diesel generator.

Your students working with Mr. Tokaph installing solar panels on our center’s roof

The number of times after hours, work was done in the dark became numerous due to power outages. The cost of diesel also meant the generator was left for class hours and emergency use. Having a kitchen, coursework in electrical work and a newly updated computer lab are nothing without the power to make them run. But now they have that power.

Future students will not only be able to easily learn how solar panels work but also how to install and maintain them. Besides the usual skills that have been taught in our electrician course, the hands-on solar panel experience will give our students an additional skill that will set them apart when they are seeking full-time employment upon graduation in a field that currently does not have as many people with expertise in the growing field of renewable energy.

The solar panels also now show how easy it is to provide clean, environmentally-friendly power that lights up and powers many of the essentials needed to run a place of learning that provides for over 150 students and staff. It does not cover all of our energy needs but is a perfect example of what can be done on a modest budget to help the environment in the long run if done on a larger scale.

Our computer lab’s lights are powered by solar.

As discussed previously, these solar panels were mostly the result of generous donors who attended the Shine a Light on Education fundraiser in Manhattan last October. Uniting Distant Stars was able to surpass the initial goal of $5,000 and unite more “Stars” in showing the importance of supporting trade skills to improve local communities on the other side of the world. Without them, and supporters like you, our many students, their families, and the communities they live in would not be able to shine to their brightest abilities.

With the beginning of this new year, Uniting Distant Stars is counting its blessings and does not plan to slow down on its progress of expanding programs and opportunities for students in Liberia. With your help, we can continue to expand the number of solar panels at the learning center and become 100% renewable and self-reliant. 

You can help us reach our Phase 2 goal of $3,040 by joining two supporters who have already donated $1,025! Please donate today to complete our solar project. Thank you for Lighting Up the lives of Liberian Youth!


January has been busy preparing for yet another exciting year. As we look ahead to our plans for 2014, we also reflect back on what we accomplished since our beginnings in 2012. It was reassuring to see that our humble organization is making progress that is small-small (an expression used in Liberia).

This post highlights some project milestones and features photographs taken by Heather during her first year of residency in Liberia, a beautiful tropical nation along the coast of West Africa. 

This image was created in 2007, filling the map outline of Liberia with photos of Coconut trees in Bong County
 and the pre-sunset ocean view along beach in Congo Town.

What compelled us to start Uniting Distant Stars? The co-founders Heather Cannon-Winkelman and Kelvin Fomba had an idea to start a vocational training center that balanced the job skills with the job-keeping skills. The latter component is often lacking in training programs to where many of the graduates emerged ill-prepared for such workplace expectations as punctuality and appropriate behavior. In our attempt to make this dream a reality we applied for a fellowship in 2010 and 2011 for start-up funding.

June 2007 – Kpatawee (“K” is silent) Waterfall in Bong County.

Both attempts failed to move us to the next level. As we reassessed the application process and the finalists, we noticed a pattern. Those making through each “gate’ had projects or programs that were producing results. This is when we realized that we needed to start a program that showed we were walking our talk. 

November 2007 – Heading east through Grand Bassa County.

By July 2012, we transformed the essence of Uniting Distant Stars. Besides being a blog it was a bona fide organization serving disadvantaged youth through education. We provided primary and secondary school scholarships, vocational training tuition assistance, and a school supply drive for Russ Wood Christian Academy.

November 2007 – Nature’s funny way to ask “Why” – Grand Bassa County

It was the school supply drive that attracted the most interest and we  slowly increased our circle of supporters. This momentum got us thinking about what we should do next and we started off 2013 with many ambitious goals. We met most, including:

  • Published our first annual report, listing 2012activities and 2013 goals.
  • Formed our U.S. based board of directors.
  • Registered Uniting Distant Stars, Inc as a Minnesota Non-Profit Corporation.
  • Secured our fiscal sponsor, Ebenezer Community Church in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota.
  • Organized three successful fundraisers focused on programs in Liberia. 
  • Shipped four 14-cubic-foot boxes for Russ Wood Christian Academy.
  • Developed working partnerships with organizations in both Minnesota and Liberia.
  • Held first annual youth leadership workshop in Liberia on “creative and innovative thinking”
2007 – Sunset along Golden Beach in Monrovia

In summary, 2013 was an amazing year. It opened new pathways for us to expand our network of donors, followers and partners. That success is the driving force to continue developing and growing our programs in the coming year. Learn more about what we achieved in 2013 and what is in store for 2014 in our next annual report, to be published in April. Uniting Distant Stars exists because of the passion and dedication of all who have generously supported us. Thank you!

Liberian Youth Define Leadership Qualities

Since our return from Liberia in September, we have been reviewing the data we gathered from the young men and women who participated in our two-day workshop. One of the documents that our young participants completed was a pre-workshop information form. This form listed ten questions focusing on problem solving, helping others, character building and much more. The purpose of this form was to better understand these young mindsets before they were challenged by the two-day creative and innovative thinking workshop.

One of the questions asked on this form was “what are three qualities you find important in a leader?” When reviewing these forms a few days before the workshop, we were quite impressed by their responses. Clearly, they can visualize what makes a good leader despite being confronted examples of corrupt leadership. So, it seems fitting that their thoughtful effort be shared with a greater audience.

How does one best convey what these young Liberian men and women named are important leadership attributes? Well, it was not going to be easy, because there were 54 respondents and some of the qualities were mentioned more than once. Of course the obvious option would be to publish a simple list that would start with the most important trait at the top. However, it would do little to symbolize what they saw as the ideal leader.

So, the next option was to illustrate their ideas in what is known as a word cloud (i.e. tag cloud) as shown below.

 This graphic has many layers to its design. The leadership qualities that were mentioned more than once were carefully laid out within the national borders of Liberia. The green background with the brown edging represents Liberia’s lush rain forest and fertile ground, which is ready to be planted with the purposeful seeds of these emerging leaders. The color and size of each word represents the number of times a particular quality was mentioned.

Here are the most commonly named qualities:

  1. Patient: selected 9 times
  2. Respectful: selected 7 times
  3. Innovative and Visionary: selected 6 times each
  4. Committed, Compassionate, Good Listener, Humble & Open: selected 5 times each  
  5. Green qualities: selected 4 times each
  6. Yellow qualities: selected 3 times each
  7. Red qualities: selected 2 times each

This word cloud was not able to accommodate all the qualities that were chosen. Therefore, the illustration below shows the “The Honorable Mentions” for the leadership traits that were only selected once.

Both visuals will be included in our workshop next October when we return to Liberia. As we prepare for next year, we want to continue to find creative and thoughtful ways to capture what these young people expressed before, during and after the workshop. There is much to be gained from their insights and perspectives about the world. Let’s face it…our young men and women around the world are the next leaders in business, government, academia and so forth. This is why we value their input and inspire them to become the next great leaders of the 21st century.