If things were normal, I would have been in Liberia at this time. However, as the situation rapidly changed around the world, the Liberian Business Association (LIBA) decided on March 12 to postpone the trip indefinitely.
This was going to be an exciting trip. Our students were preparing for my arrival. Both the primary and vocational training students were planning their separate programs on my behalf. Also, the staff wanted me to wear this shirt when I arrived at the airport because they would be wearing something with the same fabric. They wanted us to be uninformed.
Additionally, Kelvin Fomba, UDS Co-Founder and Country Director worked on refreshing the center. For instance, he hand-drew some new images on the exterior walls. As shown below, he drew a treadle sewing machine, someone working on a computer, and an electrician ready for work.
Speaking of electricians, our students installed new exterior lights to brighten the entrance area. These particular light bulbs take less wattage to run, thus exacting less drain on our solar power. Again, we want Thank all of you that helped us install solar. Since January 2019, we have not gone one day without lights.
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!
In honor of this Thanksgiving Holiday in the U.S., we wanted to give the many reasons why we are grateful for YOU.
You made it possible for over 40 students to complete the Permaculture Design Certification Training in January.
Your generosity gave light to all students. Also, it allowed two UDS Electrician Classes to install Solar Power at the UDS Center in January and June 2019.
You supported 75 young men and women through their year-long journey of learning a trade. They started in March 2018 and graduated on April 13, 2019.
Your kindness empowered the UDS Liberian Team to answer the request of parents. They wanted an affordable and quality primary school in their community. Our team created UDS Academy in September 2018 and completed its first year of programming in June 2019.
Finally, you welcomed the third cohort of students in May 2019. They started their year-long journey in learning and practicing skills in their respective course(s). Your continued support will help them complete their course(s) and graduate in 2020.
Without a doubt, we have many reasons to be grateful for all that YOU do!
Reliable and uninterrupted electricity improves the quality of education for students at our training center. On June 12, Taleance T Tokpah (the owner of T & T Solar Tech) spent the day teaching 18 electrician students about solar power and giving them real experience with installing it. Please read the caption of each photo to know what they experienced and gained from this opportunity.
As you can see, solar also powers our students in learning renewable energy with this practical experience with Taleance T Tokpah (the owner of T & T Solar Tech). Your generous support made this learning opportunity possible for your electrician students. Although the current economic situation caused us to miss our mark in achieving 100% renewable energy, we did connect half our computer lab. Thank you for being a Classroom Hero for Liberian Youth!
With graduation just around the corner, it is important to pause and highlight what you helped Uniting Distant Stars accomplish in the first quarter of 2019:
Over 40 participates received Permaculture Design Certification training in January. Two of the graduates implemented the tools of this training to be self-sufficient. A young woman returned to her family farm in Bomi County about 2 hours from Monrovia, because she saw the value of Permaculture training in providing income for her family. Another man (see photo below), who already had gardens in the Monrovia area, realized how he could produce a better yield and provide more for his family.
UDS Electrician Students received real experience with the solar installation with the guidance of the vendor/technician. The students securely placed the solar panels on the roof and installed the wire connection from the panels to electrify our center. Most of our center is powered with solar except the computer lab.
UDS Kickball and Football Teams brought home 1st and 2nd place victories respectively on March 30.
Thank you for your continued and generous support in equipping youth with the knowledge and skills they need to realize their potential!
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.
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.
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!