One of the most rewarding aspects of our work is receiving direct feedback from a student. On January 10, 2021, I (Heather Cannon) chatted with Kadiatu M. Swarray on Messenger, and then she called me to share more about her experience at our Vocational Training Center. She started her Cosmetology training in September 2020 and wanted to share her experience below in how you transformed her life.
Uniting Distant Stars (UDS) is a vocational training center that makes you focused and serious. You can’t make it if you are a lazy student. I come to school three times a week. Also, I am a graduate (November 25, 2020) of the African Methodist Episcopal University with a Bachelor of Public Administration (BPA). Since graduation, I have never earned any money on my own. But by being at UDS for 4 months this gone December, I now have earned more than $50 to $60 USD.
Kadiatu’s reply to my question about what she likes about Uniting Distant Stars.
So, UDS is a self-employment area but it can only happen if you are determined. I never in one day knew how to braid hair. But now with the help of UDS, I am learning little by little. My instructor Emmanuel said, “you are your own internship”. He explained that if we find our own clients we can apply our skills as part of our training. He teaches something new every class time, so you want to show up and learn.
Kadiatu’s conversion with me on the phone.
How did you find UDS? “My grandma owns a cook shop and would come to sell food to students at the center. From what she saw, she kept telling me to go to this school and learn computers. I said to my grandma not now because I can focus only on one thing at a time. I can go after graduating from college. So, when I completed my degree last year I enrolled in the Cosmetology Course.”
Kadiatu responding to my follow-up question.
Without a doubt, your investment in students like, Kadiatu, provides the means for self-sufficiency and leadership. In December, she became the student president of her 2020/2021 class and also for her course. Thank you for being her Classroom Hero!
September 22, started a new term for a new group of students. In fact, many of your new students asked to start their practicals during the first week. For instance, the Event Decoration Students started making bangles on the second class day and sold them to other students. Just like that, they are learning a skill while earning some money.
Additionally, your Cosmetology Students began practicing plaiting hair at the Uniting Distant Stars Salon. In the near future, they will be working with actual people to advance their application of this valuable skill. Your students waste no time when it comes to learning a trade career.
On Saturday, August 1, 2020, 60 vocational training graduates arrived to receive their diplomas. Two others showed up that day to check-in and received their diplomas later in the week. Since the schools closed in March, some students left the city to spend time with their families in the interior. So, we could see additional graduates in the coming weeks or months.
During the months of June and July, students came to the center to take a photo in a cap and gown for their diplomas. We took these photos and arranged them their respective courses as shown below. Please join us in congratulating the 2019/2020 graduates in receiving their diplomas!
Our heartfelt THANKS for being part of their year-long learning journey! Your kindness and support helped them achieve this important milestone of graduating.
How are you today? We hope you found ways to adapt to the new normal as we move forward with 2020. It seems like things change daily and we learn to adjust as needed. Again, your dedication to Liberian Youth allows UDS to be agile during these trying times. Thank you again for including UDS in your charitable giving!
In Liberia, they are trying to balance managing the cases as they increase with removing some of the restrictions. Let’s look at the current numbers for COVID-19 as August 9: 1,234confirmed cases, 79 people who have died, 714 people recovered, and 267 cases per million people. Again, testing is limited, so these numbers might not reflect reality.
The Government of Liberia announced that the 6th to 11th graders will return on August 10 to resume the 2019/2020 school year. The year will end in December. There is no return of the preschoolers to 5th graders. All schools are waiting on any guidance if we can promote them from what they accomplished during the time they attended. Therefore, the academic year will start either end of December or early January.
Also, universities and vocational training schools are reopening. We have a tentative date of September 15 to start our fourth vocational training cohort. Currently, our tailoring instructor and graduates are making masks for the 6th and 7th graders and the new vocational training students. Additionally, We will be adding extra handwashing stations and taking their temperatures before entering the center. Keeping all students safe is our number priority.
On Saturday, May 23, 2020, about 60 Vocational Training Students came to the center to receive their handwashing packages, because they were unable to come the week before. Kelvin Fomba, UDS Co-Founder & Director in Liberia held a meeting with the students. They all wore masks and observed social distancing.
The students started sharing their concerns and thoughts with one another about the COVID-19, the reopening of schools, etc. Some students shared how times were hard and the struggles they are facing. Two students got up and shared their testimonials.
Linda Foeday, Cosmetology
The first one was Linda Foeday, a 2019 Hotel Management Graduate and soon-to-be Cosmetology graduate. She shared how fortunate she was to demonstrate her hotel management skills during the permaculture training in January 2019. Linda served the trainers from Sierra Leone Foundation for New Democracy during their nine-day stay. From this experience, she wanted to come back and learn more, and be part of the UDS Team. Based on her dedication, hard work, and leadership, she was appointed to run the Hair Salon that we acquired and opened last fall.
Next up was Grace Gweh, a three-course soon-to-be graduate in computers, cosmetology, and hotel management. She did all of this while working as a primary school teacher. As she stood at the podium, Grace shared how she created the grade sheets for the students at her school. She then explained how she earned money from designing flyers or other materials for people requesting her service. Grace, a self-motivated person, wants to learn as much as she can. She definitely inspires others through her own example.
As you see, your investment in students like Linda and Grace pays off. They could not have gotten this far without your generous help!
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!