Your continual support over the past decade helped build and grow Uniting Distant Stars into a thriving organization. In fact, you took us from supporting other schools to starting our own. Without a doubt, you deserve a huge CONGRATS for a successful decade! So, let’s review your achievements during the 2010s.
2011 – The Journey Begins
Every journey begins with a single step and a small gesture of kindness. For UDS, it began when Kelvin Fomba (Co-Founder & Director) received two barrels and shared school supplies to a school with over 300 young children. This grew into an annual school supply drive for the next five years.
Additionally, our academic scholarship program kicked off with two students in 2011. A year later, we provided eight scholarships for young people seeking a six-month vocational training program. Six young men completed received a masonry certificate and two young women received a plumbing certificate. From this point on, we continued to give financial assistance ambitious.
2013 – Make it Official
After two years of watching our two projects take root, we became a registered Minnesota non-profit in June 2013. At this time, we formed our board and planned our official launch in Liberia in September. With the help of two founding board members, Elijah and Gradieh Wreh, we developed and facilitated a two-day workshop. The “Youth Leadership Workshop on Innovative Creative and Innovative Thinking” introduced Liberian Youth to UDS.
During this workshop held in Monrovia, we challenged the 50 participates to think outside of the box. For instance, they viewed various videos of other African Youth solving a problem with used parts such as generating electricity. Furthermore, Kelvin demonstrated first-hand how this was possible. He first showed them the exhaust manifold he made for the car he drove to the workshop. Next, he modeled the product line (backpacks to rain suits) he made from recycled drinking water sachets.
In close, we probably gained the most from this workshop because we used the concepts to help UDS adapt and grow as an organization.
2014 & 2015 – Facing Challenges
Our excitement from 2013 turned to great concern in 2014 when the Ebola Crisis took center stage in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. As the nation declared a state of emergency and shuttered all schools, our flagship programs came to a halt. Yet, some of the youth did not want to sit idle. So, they reached out and asked Kelvin to provide some skills training.
Although we did not have a school yet, Kelvin transformed his home to a learning center. Also, he received training on how to mitigate risk during the Ebola crisis and implement safety protocols. Then, we started two pilot projects: auto mechanics-drivers education training and sewing durable products with recycled materials. The former worked with 14 youth and later with 4.
As the crisis started to subside in 2015, we launched our “Backpacks for Peace” program. From the results of the 2014 pilot, we recruited 20 youth to learn how to sew recycled drinking water sachets into backpacks. in the course of the next four months, they made over 300 backpacks. Later that year, the backpacks filled with school supplies were giving to young children.
Because of the success of our skills training programs, more youth started to come to our doors and seek our help. At this time, we discovered the youth were our guiding force. We listened to their needs and did what we could to make it possible.
2016 & 2017 – Growth and Expansion
When your mission is youth-focused, be prepared to respond to their requests. That is exactly what we did in 2016. First, they wanted afternoon study classes, and then computer training. Soon, our learning center (Kelvin’s house) overflowed with children and youth. The center offered a library, after school study classes, and auto mechanics, computers, and sewing training.
It became clear that we needed a larger place and the search was on. Kelvin found a former school building within five minutes from his house. With help from one of our sustaining donors, we secured the building in May 2016. The building was in deplorable condition, so Kelvin and his team started to refresh and renovate it into a suitable learning environment by October 2016. Another sustaining donor gave us the funds to install electricity. In just a matter of five months, we held the grand opening of our new center.
Before 2016 ended, we applied for and received our TVET permit to offer professional and technical training. Immediately, our team began recruiting students for vocational training. By February 2017, we officially opened our Vocational Training Center with year-long courses in highly demanded trades. The students received over 80% hands-on training to apply the skills. Gratefully, this achievement resulted from a small community of global supporters and a highly resourceful Liberian team. Thank you!
2018 & 2019 – Building Sustainability
Before the new academic school year began in September 2018, we were inundated by pleas from parents in the community. Liberia’s increasing inflation forced many families to affordable schools. Our team stepped up to the challenge and developed a plan to open a tuition-free school. First, they needed the parents to agree to buy the student uniforms made by UDS to be a self-sustaining school. Next, our team pooled their resources to transform the center into a dual-purpose building. Finally, the UDS Academy opened with 350 students.
As we moved into 2019, Liberia’s economic crisis caused businesses to close, and exchange rates and prices to increase. Now more than ever, we needed to find ways to increase our sustainability. Starting in January and June, we installed solar panels to provide 75% of our electrical needs.
In October, Kelvin did major repairs for a person’s vehicle and they gave us a shop (near our center) for 18 months rent-free. In November, we moved our cosmetology department to the shop and opened a hair salon to sell products. All these initiatives are part of our three-year strategic plan.
2010s – A Decade of Successes
As we close this decade, we want to celebrate you for joining UDS on this journey. It took a global village to make this all possible. Your generous giving and continued prayers kept us moving forward despite the challenges. We are forever grateful for your service!
Since 2011, Uniting Distant Stars partnered with generous sponsors to provide academic scholarships in primary and secondary level education. As we move forward to 2019, we are excited to announce the Graduation of Deborah Tweah! She is our fourth graduate from this program with the first in 2014 and the other two in 2016.
Deborah joined UDS in 2015 as one of the participants in the Backpacks for Peace Service Learning Project. While she was learning how to sew backpacks, she shared her struggle in finding support to return to school. Based on her efforts in the backpacks project, she received a sponsor to see her through graduation.
On Saturday, August 17, 2019, Deborah received her diploma from the Bethlehem Baptist School, a 5-minute walking distance from our school. Not only did she successfully pass the 12th grade but she also passed her national exam.
Sadly, Deborah did not have any family to attend her graduation. So, UDS leadership and scholarship students showed up to support her on this special day. Also, they held a celebration party at the center after the commencement ceremony. She felt honored to receive such a gift that she gave UDS Co-Founder & Director, Kelvin Fomba her gown and Brother Daniel Lloyd her cap (he helped facilitate the scholarship program when working with one of the partnership schools).
Thank you to Deborah’s sponsor for allowing her to graduate from high school! We hope that she can share her own story in a future article.
Thank you for shopping at the Ten Thousand Villages Community Shopping Event held on May 21st! Your purchases (between 12:00pm- 4:00pm) were tallied, and 15%, approximately $225, was donated to Uniting Distant Stars. We also received about $23 in cash donations. Because of your generosity, 25 students will receive school supplies from our upcoming Annual School Supplies Drive, which will be supporting three primary schools (serving 700 students) in Liberia.
We would also like to express our immense gratitude toward Ten Thousand Villages for hosting this community shopping event on our behalf. This opportunity allowed for us to showcase our commitment to serving children and youth in Liberia, by providing them with educational resources and vocational training. We would also like to express a particular note of thanks to Ten Thousand Villages’ store manager, Julie, and her staff. They helped make it a successful day!
Uniting Distant Stars Information Table showcases your continued generosity.
Our UDS volunteers did a great job representing our cause at the event. We are extremely grateful to this dedicated, talented team for contributing to the success of our organization. Special Acknowledgments to: Miriam Monono, Diane Anastos, Adam Pederson, Mary Rosendahl, Philip Kaleewoun II, and Florkime Paye.
UDS Board Members (left to right):Miriam, Diane and Adam.
Left to Right: UDS Co-founder & Executive Director Heather, Board Members Philip and Mary.
At our information table, we showcased a sample of a UDS backpack made by a Liberian teen from the Backpacks for Peace program. The backpacks constructed in this program are used not only as vessels for the Liberian youth to transport school materials, but they also serve as our “Emergency Preventative Kit” prototype (filled with mosquito netting, water filter, masks, gloves and more). Go to our projects page to see a photo of the items in this backpack.
UDS Backpack for Peace being worn by Heather is something you made possible.
In addition to all these exciting developments, we received the Dimes for Dreams cans! Ten Thousand Villages became the first ever UDS supporter to put one of our cans on their counter. We’d like to issue another “thank you” to them for helping us kickstart this fundraising campaign. More details about this project are coming soon from our campaign coordinators Adam and Florkime.
UDS Dimes for Dreams cans are in and ready to start our campaign on June 1
Additionally, our “Recipes for Learning” Sample Cookbook arrived recently. Mary, our project lead, created this mock-up to show potential sponsors how they can benefit from helping this important initiative. There will be much more to share about this project in the near future.
UDS Recipes for Learning Sample Cookbook to show to potential sponsors.
For those who were not able to attend the Ten Thousand Villages Community Shopping Event, we will be back on December 3rd! We will continue to share with you how your support is changing the lives of Liberian children and youth in real time.
Announcements for this event will be published in November.
Liberian children and youth witnessed their wishes being answered in the past two weeks. Uniting Distant Stars (UDS) raised $2,042 (shy of our $2,500 goal) from our generous Star Supporters to upgrade our Learning Center in Congo Town, Liberia. Our Liberian team led by Kelvin Fomba, Co-Founder and Country Director, went the extra mile to check off the items on the students’ original wish list. In the last eight days another $360 was donated from new and existing benevolent supporters. Their gracious generosity will buy other items on the list such as fans to keep the center comfortable, additional books for the library, chalk board for instructors, and other crucial needs for its operations.
Like any good upgrade you need to have a release party. On Friday March 25, UDS Learning Center hosted two programs. The first one was organized by the UDS Youth Group. Since it was Good Friday, they focused on Easter. During this three-hour program they talked about the meaning of Easter, played some games, and also had a Bible quizzing contest between the boys and girls. They had two rounds with each having 20 questions and one question was worth 10 points. The boys and girls tied in the first round. However, in the second round the boys out scored the girls 120 to 80. Our Youth Group’s program was a resounding success and everyone had a great time.
Youth Groups Program
UDS Youth Bible Quizzing Contest
The second program followed soon after to introduce our youth to the new UDS Computer Lab. They have eagerly waited for this lab ever since we started the upgrade campaign last year. The original plan was to have four computers, but Kelvin reached out to his connections and helped secure six used PCs–four laptops and two desktops. He is still negotiating on adding one or two more computers. Our team also built computer desks and bought a stabilizer to protect the PCs from power surges and outages, because electricity is neither consistent nor reliable. Another stabilizer will be purchased with the recent donations to ensure the electrical load is distributed evenly.
UDS Computer Lab
Our team expected 25 to 30 young Liberians to attend this three-hour program, but it attracted over 50. Computer training is in high demand with Liberian youth, but not everyone can afford to take courses at vocational training schools. This is why our team went all out in preparing the lab and its introduction program.
Kelvin Fomba introducing the computer lab.
Kelvin opened with how the computer lab will operate and its corresponding rules. Next part was to determine who would be the first recipients of this training course. Kelvin and his volunteers devised a raffle drawing to select trainees since there was a ratio of approximately four students to one computer. Our youth anxiously waited to hear who were the lucky winners as each name was pulled. Soon twelve students were chosen to attend one of two classes, because we wanted to accommodate as many as possible.
Liberian Youth learning about the new UDS Computer Lab
The students will learn about computer hardware, basic software and internet functions in this month-long course. Other students wanting to attend this course signed up on a list and will participate in computer theory classes as they wait their turn for the practical training. The training materials and curriculum for this program are being developed by our volunteers in Liberia and Minnesota.
UDS Youth learning about computers.
First Students of the UDS Computer Lab
Another part of the upgrade included expanding our library collection. On Monday March 14, two of our youth volunteers, Patrick and Princess, purchased 52 books from the list of requested titles and topics from our students. These books are required by their schools as part of the curriculum. Though our volunteers bought 80% of the books requested by the students, their list continues to grow. Eventually, we like to purchase additional copies of the main books to allow more than one student to use for their homework assignments.
Additional books purchased for the library
UDS Youth appreciating the new books.
The following day these new books were included in our studying classes. There are two objectives with these study classes as follows:
Students are asked a series of questions about the subject(s) and topic(s) for their assignments and are then shown how to find books in the library and search for the information within the book.
Students are given detailed instruction from one of volunteer teachers on a particular subject area that they are working on at school to help bolster their understanding and ability to apply it in their homework and exams.
Students receiving a tour of the UDS library.
UDS first opened our learning center over a year ago with a small library and providing skills training courses such as auto mechanics, drivers ed and Backpacks for Peace. In September 2015, it had its first upgrade with building extra shelves for additional books donated from the U.S. and more tables for students to complete their homework. This second upgrade was centered on the requests of our students to best meet their educational needs since their schools are not able to provide the required books and textbooks or computer labs. Through our growing community of bighearted supporters, our students are extremely grateful and overjoyed with seeing their wishes being fulfilled.
All of us at Uniting Distant Stars extend our heartfelt Thanks and Appreciation to our most generous Star Supporters!
Please read these additional posts about our learning center.
We owe a debt of gratitude to all our STAR Supporters for making 2015 a successful year! Your generosity, kindness and prayers uplifted Liberian youth through the remaining days of the Ebola crisis, and inspired them to reach new heights with learning and skill building opportunities we provided throughout the year. Uniting Distant Stars (UDS) made great leaps with becoming an accredited and registered non-government organization in Liberia, and establishing our base in Monrovia. It took all of you–our village–to raise UDS up during the last 365 days.
Scholarships: On March 2, 15 students started the 2014/2015 shortened school year that ended in July. In September 16 students started the 2015/2016 regular academic year with two preparing to graduate from high school around July.
5th Annual School Supply Drive:In September and October, about 700 students enrolled in three schools received much needed school supplies to start their 2015/2016 academic year on the right track.
Joyce Mallery: She fixed our logo, created my UDS T-shirt to wear while being honored as Inspiring Women at the Minnesota Lynx Game, and designed our brochure and flyers.
Mary Rosendahl: She continues to lead our Recipes for Learning Cookbook team. She tested more recipes for the team members to taste, and documented and photographed the ones that passed.
Rodney Johnson: He ensured our connection with each Google Hangout and provided photos, videos and stories of our activities in Liberia throughout the year.
We give a HEARTFELT THANKS to all of you supporting UDS as donors, board members, volunteers, partners, prayer warriors, and Sundance Family Foundation for giving us our first grant of $3,000 for our Backpacks for Peace project!!!
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.
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:
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).
Second month was focused on sewing the cloth lining to the exterior plastic fabric and making the individual pieces for the backpack.
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.
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!