Nourishing the Minds of Liberia’s Bright Stars

Throughout life we not only answer the call to the hunger pangs in our stomachs, but also to the ones in our minds. When we continually feed our minds with new knowledge, we are more open to the possibilities that lay in front of us. This is why educational nourishment is very fundamental to the development of our young people and an investment to the future of our global family.

For three years running, Uniting Distant Stars (UDS) has been investing into the education of Liberia’s youth. Our Bright Stars program has provided full-year scholarships for primary and secondary students, tuition assistance for young adults in vocational technical intuitions, and school supplies for about 250 students at the Russ Wood Christian Academy in Congo Town Liberia.

2013 Christmas Party where the supplies are distributed.

In 2013, we increased our scholarship students from five to six. The tuition fees for all six were $1,720 along with $60 in UDS administration costs was sent on August 15. These fees not only cover the cost of going to school for one year, but also the student’s uniforms, shoes and starting supplies. One of our students is a senior in high school and this will require additional fees later in year for the West African Examinations Council (WAEC) national exam and graduation.

Also in 2013, we increased the number of 14-cubic-foot boxes from three to four to ship school supplies for our adopted school–Russ Wood. This was a very successful Bright Stars Campaign that has raised about $2,300 in cash and in-kind donations in matter of five weeks. Our sponsors have hailed from Oklahoma, Missouri, Wisconsin and Minnesota. We want to recognize Oklahoma as the super STARS of this campaign by giving a total of 1,752, which we need to also acknowledge Tracy Bishop (a donor and advocate) for reaching out to her women’s group in supporting Liberia’s Bright Stars.

On Saturday, August 31, we completed the initial packing of the four boxes. UDS Executive Director, Heather Cannon-Winkelman, spent the last week in August shopping for supplies with the donated money and ensured everything was weighed and inventoried (shipping company requirement) before the packing crew arrived. Within 30 minutes, our crew of three–Mary Rosendahl (board secretary), Heather, and Saah Kpakar (board treasurer)–were able to pack over 1,700 pounds of supplies in the four boxes. 

Before and after picture showing the 2013 supplies being packed in the 14-cubic-foot boxes

On Monday, September 9, all four boxes will be picked up by our shipping company I.B. Express (Liberian owned and operated) and soon will make their long voyage across the Atlantic. The cost to ship and clear each box is $235 for total of $940. The shipping time varies due to weather and changes in the sea, but we anticipate that these supplies will arrive in Liberia either late November or early December. 

2013 boxes are sealed and ready to ship.

In December, on the last of school before they take holiday break, we will provide a Christmas Party to distribute the supplies and provide a hot meal for all the students, who range in ages from 5 to 22 in grades K thru 6. This party was a huge success last year and we look forward to doing it again. 

On the behalf of our board, U.S. and Liberian volunteers, we extend our heartfelt Thank You for everyone who has contributed to the nourishment of the young minds in our Bright Stars program.

Nourishing the Minds of Liberia’s Bright Stars

Throughout life we not only answer the call to the hunger pangs in our stomachs, but also to the ones in our minds. When we continually feed our minds with new knowledge, we are more open to the possibilities that lay in front of us. This is why educational nourishment is very fundamental to the development of our young people and an investment to the future of our global family.

For three years running, Uniting Distant Stars (UDS) has been investing into the education of Liberia’s youth. Our Bright Stars program has provided full-year scholarships for primary and secondary students, tuition assistance for young adults in vocational technical intuitions, and school supplies for about 250 students at the Russ Wood Christian Academy in Congo Town Liberia.

2013 Christmas Party where the supplies are distributed.

In 2013, we increased our scholarship students from five to six. The tuition fees for all six were $1,720 along with $60 in UDS administration costs was sent on August 15. These fees not only cover the cost of going to school for one year, but also the student’s uniforms, shoes and starting supplies. One of our students is a senior in high school and this will require additional fees later in year for the West African Examinations Council (WAEC) national exam and graduation.

Also in 2013, we increased the number of 14-cubic-foot boxes from three to four to ship school supplies for our adopted school–Russ Wood. This was a very successful Bright Stars Campaign that has raised about $2,300 in cash and in-kind donations in matter of five weeks. Our sponsors have hailed from Oklahoma, Missouri, Wisconsin and Minnesota. We want to recognize Oklahoma as the super STARS of this campaign by giving a total of 1,752, which we need to also acknowledge Tracy Bishop (a donor and advocate) for reaching out to her women’s group in supporting Liberia’s Bright Stars.

On Saturday, August 31, we completed the initial packing of the four boxes. UDS Executive Director, Heather Cannon-Winkelman, spent the last week in August shopping for supplies with the donated money and ensured everything was weighed and inventoried (shipping company requirement) before the packing crew arrived. Within 30 minutes, our crew of three–Mary Rosendahl (board secretary), Heather, and Saah Kpakar (board treasurer)–were able to pack over 1,700 pounds of supplies in the four boxes. 

Before and after picture showing the 2013 supplies being packed in the 14-cubic-foot boxes

On Monday, September 9, all four boxes will be picked up by our shipping company I.B. Express (Liberian owned and operated) and soon will make their long voyage across the Atlantic. The cost to ship and clear each box is $235 for total of $940. The shipping time varies due to weather and changes in the sea, but we anticipate that these supplies will arrive in Liberia either late November or early December. 

2013 boxes are sealed and ready to ship.

In December, on the last of school before they take holiday break, we will provide a Christmas Party to distribute the supplies and provide a hot meal for all the students, who range in ages from 5 to 22 in grades K thru 6. This party was a huge success last year and we look forward to doing it again. 

On the behalf of our board, U.S. and Liberian volunteers, we extend our heartfelt Thank You for everyone who has contributed to the nourishment of the young minds in our Bright Stars program.

Ode to a Toilet: The Project Begins

This post will convey the importance of having a proper
sanitation system and what Uniting Distant Stars intends to do about this in
2013. First, let’s identify the role of the toilet as follows:
Ode to a Toilet…
You go by so many names: commode, loo, john, pot, throne, porcelain god,
and so on.
You serve a greater purpose by “flushing” away our bacteria-laden waste
to maintain good health.
You allow us to “rest” for little or long while as we contemplate our
to-dos for the day. 
You are often taken for granted by those who are fortunate to have one [or
more] in their home.
You can be designed to convert our waste into fertilizer and even
energy.
You are a simple device that can be easily maintained with just a
little care.
You need to be honored and recognized for selfless commitment to our
overall well-being

Here is the “poop”
why toilets matter…
 
  • Approximately 2.6 billion people (37% of the
    global populations) lack a proper toilet.
  • Those without a proper sanitation system are
    forced to openly defecate in areas that can contaminate water leading to the
    spread of diseases. Note: “one gram of feces may contain 10 million viruses,
    one million bacteria, 1000 parasite cysts and 100 worm eggs.”
  • Some of these diseases include diarrhea,
    cholera, dysentery, typhoid, and hepatitis A that can kill approximately 115
    people in Africa every hour.
  • Adequate toilet facilities that are private and
    separate improve the attendance rate of school children and the enrollment of
    girls.
  • There are many more reason why a proper
    sanitation systems and hygiene standards is necessary for economic and other reasons.
       Source: WHO
10 Facts on Sanitation

In 2012, Uniting Distant Stars initiated an adopt-a-school
project in Liberia
to support the education of approximately 250
children
at the Russ Wood Christian Academy. This commitment is beyond providing
books and pencils, and includes the overall
well-being of these children. This is why we have taken on as our 2013
capital improvement project the replacement of its substandard latrine
(see pictures below) with an environmentally
friendly and sustainable model.
We recently put out a request for toilet models on Facebook and
Linkedin. To date we have received five responses from various organizations having WASH (Water,
Sanitation, and Hygiene) programs in developing nations. Three have already
submitted their model types and are currently being reviewed. We plan to select the
three models that meet the following criteria:
  • Uses no water
  • Inexpensive and simple to construct by community
    members and students from a local trade school.
  • Easily maintained and long-lasting
  • Appropriate for the Liberia cultural and
    environmental standards 

We will present them to Russ Wood’s school
administration, and they will select one that is appropriate for their
school.

We will continue to develop this
project and provide an update after we have met with the school administration on
what model they chose. We are still accepting recommendations of model types that meet our stated
criteria. Please submit to [email protected].

Supporting Education in Liberia

It is absolutely amazing to trace the ripple effects of a simple gesture of kindness that started four years ago. These waves of compassion have reached the shores of good-hearted people from all walks of life. By January 2012 this expanding sea of good will result in an adopt-a-school project in Liberia.

It was back in late summer of 2009, my second year of living and volunteering in Liberia. I had no viable source of income, was running low on necessary supplies and had no means of buying Christmas gifts.  My Mom, Donna Cannon, went into action and reached out to a few friends and family to help put together a “care package” and some gifts to send to Liberia. What started out to be one barrel ended up as two.

Since I was robbing my retirement fund to survive, I returned to Minnesota in January 2010 to seek employment. Later that summer, my Mom nudged me into sending some Christmas cheer to my Liberian friends and family. Again we shipped two barrels with food, supplies and gifts to bring joy and hope to even more people. On Christmas Eve, my Liberian family made popcorn and Kool-Aid for a neighborhood children’s party on Christmas Day.

The Christmas Eve elves made the popcorn and filled 
50 bags with each having a piece of candy.
This kids received a bag of popcorn and Kool-Aid. The Kool-Aid 
was poured into a water bag and frozen over night.
The neighborhood kids enjoying their Christmas treat.

By the next year, I was gainfully employed. Again, with the help of family and friends, we filled three barrels of toys, school supplies, food, flip-flops (known as slippers in Liberia), and first-aid kits. Unfortunately, this shipment did not arrive before Christmas. It was not clear what caused the delay, but it finally arrived in mid-January 2012.

When the items were received and inventoried by my partner in Liberia Kelvin Fomba, he was so overjoyed by the abundance that he sought out a small impoverished school to support. With the help of Momo B Moor, a physics teacher from Monrovia Open Bible Standard School, he found a school in great need of help. Kelvin, Momo and few others distributed the school supplies and toys to the children at Russwood Christian Academy. This was the birth of our adopt-a-school project.

Exterior of Russwood Christian Academy
Meeting Russwood Staff before distributing the supplies. 
Kelvin (in the white shirt and hat) with Momo to his left.
Some of the students inside the school.
Momo distributing supplies to the children in January 2012.

Russwood was founded on March 10, 2009 by Reverend Matthew Y Kargar in Congo Town. This school was the offspring of a church founded by Pastor Russ Wood from the U.S. The school was named after Pastor Wood, because he helped open it. This small community school serves children from impoverished families in grades kindergarten to sixth. Since its founding this school has received only sporadic support. Reverend Kargar said that they welcome a partnership since they hope to expand and better serve their students.

This year has been filled with many blessings. In June, my cousin who teaches at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic School in Brooklyn Park notified me that they were replacing their old reading program and wondered if they would be of use in Africa. My answer was a definitive “Yes.” So four of us–my mom and brother, and another special lady who I consider my second mom–took three cars on a very hot July day to pick up this amazing collection. It included textbooks, workbooks, teacher lesson plans and so much more for grades K thru 6.

Though I had no immediate plan on how to ship these books to Liberia, I knew that my dear friend Lynda Gardiner’s husband John was planning to send a container home. I reached out to her and explained that I had received these books, but did not have the capacity to ship them to Liberia. I was delighted when Lynda and John agreed to help out. The books were recently packed so that they are ready to be shipped. John is finalizing his plans on when to send his 40-foot shipping container since he plans to travel home for the first time in about 20 years and wants to be there when it arrives.

The complete collection of reading books for kindergarten to sixth grade.
The reading program was packed into 28 boxes and are ready to be shipped.

In late July, I began looking for good deals on school supplies and decided to post photos of my first week’s purchases on Facebook. I was overwhelmed by the response to help from family and friends beyond my usual supporters. Previous years, this annual campaign was emailed to the main supporters, so it was great to see how others were excited to be part of this project.

First week of purchases in July 2012

For six more weeks, I received in-kind and cash donations for toys, school supplies, flip-flops, tooth brushes and teaching aids. The items purchased for that given week were shared on Facebook and an email update. Each week the support grew until we were receiving donations coming from Florida, Oklahoma, Texas, Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota. Some of these supporters were from Ghana, Chile, Eritrea and Liberia. Two of the supporters have advanced Multiple Sclerosis and enjoyed seeing the pictures of what was purchased with their donations. A young Liberian woman donated from her employer some pencils, post-it notes, t-shirts and other items imprinted with the company’s old logo. Finally, my Mom’s dentist office, Forestview Family Dentistry, donated a box of children’s toothpaste. So this campaigned represented the spirit of Uniting Distant Stars where people from diverse backgrounds come together for a greater good.

This is what was purchased or received from donations on week 3.
160 pairs of flip-flops (i.e. slippers) from toddler to adult sizes
Half of the toothbrushes that were sent.
The donated toothpaste from the dentist office.

This year we switched from barrels to large wardrobe boxes, because a box holds more volume than a barrel. So, we started out with filling one box, then two and finally three. On September 18, we shipped out three boxes with over 1,000 pounds of supplies that we hoped would arrive before Christmas.

Three large wardrobe boxes filled with over 1,000 pounds of supplies.

Well, as I said before, this year was filled with many blessings. This week I received notice from the shipping company, IB XPRESS, that the boxes estimated arrival is November 5. My eyes could not believe what I saw, so I had to reread the letter and was overjoyed with such wonderful news. For the last three years the shipment usually arrived the week of Christmas or in the case of 2011 nearly a month late.

Once these boxes arrive at the port, it takes about 10 business days for them to clear customs before being transported to the warehouse for pick-up. Kelvin and his team of volunteers will inventory what was received and start making packets for the kids. When we shipped these boxes it was around the start of the school year and at that time we were told there were about 160 enrolled students. Well now it has been confirmed that there are 211 students in this tiny school. We have enough notebooks and pencils to give to each child. We will have to give each child either one toy or a pair of flip-flops as their special gift since there was a limited number of these items. We received a few backpacks, so these will be awarded to the top performers of the school to encourage academic achievement.

Here some of the backpacks that were sent. 
They will be given to the top performers of the school.

We will be organizing a lunch and program in early December with the school staff, students and the parents. This is when the items will be distributed and we will explain our partnership with their school. We want to engage the parents so that they can take an active role in ensuring their children’s academic success, since this project is in the developmental stage.

We will be posting updates of the December program and also announce when the reading books arrive. I will be making my sixth journey back to Liberia next year and look forward to visiting Russwood Christian Academy and seeing what more that we can do to improve learning environment. Again, I want to Thank everyone who helped launch this adopt-a-school project, because what started as a ripple crossed the Atlantic and became a wave of hope.

Uniting Distant Stars Has Gone Supernova

Fueled by passion and energy, United Distant Stars is charting a new
course across the galaxy.  Its mission is to engage young
Liberians–“rising stars”–in receiving education for jobs or careers. 
We see that as their first step into the great unknown–fulfilling their
dreams of a meaningful and satisfying future!

This surge of inspired energy came after I gave a presentation on women’s leadership to the 2012 Miss Liberia Minnesota contestants on June 26, sponsored by the Liberian Youth Network (LYN). Decontee “Dee” Sawyer, LYN’s Executive Director (and also 2006 Miss Liberia/Minnesota), had heard about my presentation to the Ebenezer Community Church (ECC) Youth Group and asked if I would be interested in talking with her contestants. 

I was excited to have this opportunity to talk with these beautiful young women, and just three days away from the pageant. I knew that I had to deliver a talk that would pique their interest and stimulate involvement because they were focused on their final preparations for the contest. They each had their sight on the crown and title for 2012.

I wanted to convey three primary principles to these emerging leaders:

  • Be informed…knowledge is power,
  • Be inspired…cultivate your passion, and then
  • Ignite an eternal flame…put your passion into action
As I had with the Ebenezer Youth Group, I began by quizzing them on
their knowledge of Liberian history.  Next I sketched out brief profiles
of eight women currently recognized as powerful and inspirational
leaders in their nations, despite very dangerous circumstances, as in the case of Liberia’s Leymah Gbowee and Agnes Fallah Kamara-Umunna. There is more to be said about these women, so I will be dedicating an upcoming blog post about their incredible stories of leading in complex situations.
Finally, we closed the presentation on how they can put their passion into action. It seems that the hardest thing to do is taking those first steps. Too often we feel that we need to go BIG to make an impact and then we end up doing nothing. So, we talked about sharing their ideas with others, being an advocate for someone or something or starting a pilot project. This message was good reminder for all of us that when we take those first “small steps” we are on way to making our dreams a reality.

Left to right Jessica Chea (contestant), Catherine Carr (2012 Miss Liberia-Minnesota), Decontee Sawyer (LYN Executive Director), me, Satta Kendor (contestant), Decontee Yarpah (contestant)

After I left that night, I had no idea how my presentation went because I’m usually in a “zone” where I’m unable to gauge my audience’s
response.  The following day I received a call from Dee thanking me for a
great presentation, explaining that afterward each of the contestants
revised their “platforms” (action plans to be carried out after the
pageant–whether or not they receive the crown).

This feedback inspired me to put my passion into action!  United Distant Stars has launched two small projects focusing on educating young people in Liberia. One project has provided scholarships to five primary and secondary school students, and supplemental financial aid to eight students in three to six-month vocational programs. The second project involves adopting a small primary school in the Monrovia area.

United Distant Stars will be slowly rolling out our vision and plans as we move forward. We have added an “About” tab so you can learn more about us.

I close this post with a insightful quote from Michelango that encourages us to reach for the stars…

The greater danger for most of you lies not in setting your aim too high and falling short; but in setting your aim too low, and achieving your mark.