Article by Camila Sanchez, VoyageMinnesota (article link)
Hi Heather Cannon and Kelvin Fomba, please kick things off for us with an introduction to yourself and your story.
Uniting Distant Stars (UDS) was co-founded by Heather Cannon (U.S. Citizen) and Kelvin Fomba (Liberian Citizen) in 2011. They met in Liberia in 2007 while working at a local non-government organization (NGO) and found they shared a vision to empower Liberian Youth with educational resources. So, they started with two projects, academic scholarships and school supply drives for many local students.
In 2013, they decided to become an official non-profit in Minnesota. They launched their program in September in Liberia with a two-day workshop on creative and innovative thinking. When Ebola brought education to a standstill in 2014, their program expanded to vocational training. The youth in the area asked if they could learn some trade skills. Well, this led to three courses in auto mechanics, driver’s education, and tailoring. The latter became a service learning project of making backpacks from recycled drinking water sachets. Twenty-five students made 300 backpacks, and they were filled with school supplies and given to primary school children.
By 2016, they outgrew their current site (Kelvin’s home) and found a building to lease. From May to October that year, Kelvin and his team transformed a dilapidated building into a suitable learning environment. In November, they received their TVET (Technical and vocational education and training) permit and started recruiting students for their first official vocational training program.
The program consists of one-year courses in up to nine disciplines: Auto Mechanic, Catering, Computer, Cosmetology, Electricity, Event Decoration, Hotel Management, Plumbing, and Tailoring. The students receive at least 85% practical learning experience during the year-long course. They cater to students with no formal education to college graduates who can’t find a job. Since 2017, we have graduated four cohorts (300) students, and the fifth commencement ceremony will be held on October 15, 2022. With a strong focus on hands-on learning, many of their graduates find jobs as independent contractors. Liberia’s main employers are the government and private businesses owned by foreign nationals. Neither one provides good-paying jobs for Liberian Youth.
The UDS Liberian team and community worked together to establish affordable tuition, whereas the tailoring students would make the uniforms, and the parents would buy directly from UDS. This community partnership showed how they could collaborate in finding a solution to the high tuition problem plaguing their area. In 2018, UDS expanded its academic arm of the organization by opening a primary school to respond to the community’s pleas. Last year, they received an anonymous donation and used part of that to buy land for our future site. They are currently working on the building plans for their new center, including academic and vocational training classrooms.
I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle-free, but so far would you say the journey has been smooth?
There are many challenges with operating a non-profit in Liberia, one of the world’s poorest countries. First, Liberia is recovering from the 15-year civil war that ended in 2003 and slowly rebuilding its infrastructure. Second, the economy has suffered many blows from the Ebola crisis in 2014/15, UN Peacekeepers leaving in 2018, and now the war in Ukraine. The UN was the economic fuel for several years by renting spaces, buying supplies, and providing job opportunities. In their wake, the country is dealing with high inflation, price fluctuation of goods and services, and other economic issues.
One of the significant challenges is youth employment. According to The EPAG Project in Liberia, “There are roughly 1.1 million people in the workforce, of whom 195,000 (about 18 percent) are engaged in wage employment; the remaining 900,000-plus workers (82 percent) are considered in vulnerable employment, working for themselves or working unpaid for their households (LISGIS 2010).”
While the challenges may be overwhelming at times, UDS knows that helping Liberia’s Youth with skills training and education prepares them to be the next leaders of their nation.
Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from others?
UDS is a U.S. Non-Profit and Liberian Non-Government Organization (NGO) focused on youth development. Over the last 11 years, UDS’s approach has been to value young people and listen to what they seek. Much of their growth has been from the feedback and suggestions of their students.
This non-profit has a native Liberian, Kelvin Fomba, as its co-founder and director. He understands how his country works and successfully navigates through problems, including two pandemics–Ebola and COVID. He also serves as a role model for the next generation. Kelvin lifted himself out of poverty as a tradesperson with skills in multiple trades, so he guided the students through some of their challenges. It is not cheap to run a vocational training school because you need equipment, instructors, materials, and supplies to teach trade skills. So, we developed an affordable tuition program with a payment plan to cover our basic needs and let young people feel invested in their education. UDS’ training approach covers skills training and confidence building to prepare them as independent contractors. Based on how UDS shows youth that they have value, some alumni return to work with the organization either as administrators or instructors/teachers.
UDS thrives on being innovative. As mentioned in “Your Story,” they showed young people how to take recycled plastic drinking water sachets into usable backpacks in 2015. Another example is how Kelvin transformed an upright freezer into an oven that heats with coal for the catering students.
Additionally, UDS values sustainability in many forms. First, they partnered in 2019 with Sierra Leone Foundation for New Democracy. (SLFND) SLFND provided permaculture training during this nine-day exchange, and UDS students provided catering and hotel management services. Second, they installed solar panels on the roof to deal with unreliable and unstable electricity. While the center is not at 100% capacity, the solar provides 24/7 electricity for lights, which gives peace of mind. Third, they are slowly adding social businesses as another form of revenue. The first is a beauty salon for our cosmetology students to work with actual clients. UDS plans to expand in other areas as funding needs are met.
Throughout the years of growth, they partnered with other organizations in the U.S., Liberia, and Sierra Leone. In 2015, they received a $3,000 grant from Sundance Family Foundation for our Backpacks for Peace project. From 2014 to 2017, they worked with a Minnesota youth group called you to thrive on virtual peer-to-peer exchanges. This gave Liberian Youth the first opportunity to connect and talk with their peers in Minnesota and other states. In 2019, we partnered with Sierra Leone Foundation for New Democracy (SLFND), as mentioned above.
What quality or characteristic do you feel is most important to your success?
Being honest when dealing with people is probably the most important. We also respect and value others regardless of age or ability. Active listening to and collaborating with students and partners allows UDS to be successful because they are part of the process. We look for people who are passionate about teaching their trade and students wanting to learn. This has allowed the quality of training to improve year after year. Also, we are grateful for the generosity of our supporters in Europe. U.S. and Liberia.