Liberia: Celebrating the Student

Our most anticipated event–2nd Annual Student Celebration–was finally held on February 7, 2014, at Russ Wood School in Congo Town, Liberia. This fun-filled event was originally planned for December on the last day of school before their holiday break. However, we had to deal with a late shipment of supplies that were on a transatlantic cargo container that left in September 2013.

Though this was an initial disappointment for the Russ Wood students and staff along with UDS donors and volunteers, the wait was well worth it! This post features the stories and pictures of the day-long celebration where the students played football (i.e. soccer) and kickball, sang and danced, enjoyed good food and treats, and received their long awaited gifts.

Future players of the Lonestar Football Team. This year we sent six footballs and six kick balls along with two air pumps. The students were divided into various teams and started their day playing these two favorite games. The students expressed their gratitude for the footballs and kick balls, but stressed their wish for jerseys. We will have to figure out how to fulfill their wish.

Students who participated in the games.
Liberia’s Got Talent. When the students have an opportunity to show off their talents, they go all out on being shining stars. Some of this year’s talent was young as four years old, who were able to get up on stage to perform in front of their fellow students, teachers and visiting guests. Each soloist and group were honored by their audience with praise and applause. Their joyful noise resonated outside the walls and attracted some of the neighboring children who were not attending school that day. This is just one example of how the power of music can bring people together.

Here are some of the young performers.
On the left if the young performer (see video below) and on the right is the school’s drummer.
Here are some of the older students performing.
Video of a four-year-old girl name Josephine singing the national anthem “All Hail Liberia”

Liberia’s Rising Leaders. The MC of the day was Ishmael, who is in the sixth grade. This young man enjoys getting up in front of an audience and usually entertains them with his own parables and songs. Today, he was able to share the spotlight with many of his fellow students who got up to perform. Ishmael is very creative person along with being an active leader in his school. Based on his high performance level, he was added to our scholarship program starting this school.

Ishmael making acting as the event’s MC.
During this year’s program, one 5th grade student surprised her entire school. Young Rita took her own initiative to write a Thank You letter to Kelvin Fomba, Uniting Distant Stars Co-Founder and Country Director. She amazed the audience as she got up and read the letter out loud. Rita’s effort showed her determination and leadership abilities, which is why she was awarded a scholarship starting next school year.

Parents Involvement Increased. It was nice to see more parents attending this year’s program. Most of the presentations were focused on the importance of education and how it can shape the future of young Liberians. The parents present were in agreement and offered their support in pray to ensure that the students can continue with their education through college. Somehow this theme echoed outside the school, because it brought in a parent to register their child after the program ended.

Photos: left is some of the parents in attendance, center is Kelvin Fomba making is address on the importance of education, right is a parent joining in on the singing and dancing with the children.
The Educators. This community school is blessed with many dedicated teachers and staff. Their job is not easy since they are dealing with over 250 students in multiple grades and teaching in one room. However, they do their best to manage these constraints and find creative ways to provide a conducive learning environment.

Photos: Left is one of Russ Wood’s dedicated, caring teachers, center are the teachers seated on the stage, and right is Principal Kangar addressing to the audience.
Good eats! A big part of the celebration is providing students with a hot meal along with some Kool-aid and popcorn. We are very grateful to Russ Wood and Uniting Distant Stars volunteers who helped prepare a meal that served over 300 people without the convenience of a modern kitchen. Though we had some extra guests such as the neighborhood children who joined in the activities, there was enough food for all in attendance.

Volunteers toiled over a hot coal pot to make the delicious meal enjoyed by ll.
Volunteers individually package the popcorn and add a few pieces of candy.
Students patiently waiting in line for the Kool-aid and food.
The gifts have arrived! This is the third year that the students have receive a gift packet from Uniting Distant Stars. However, this was the first year that they had to wait longer than expected. When Kelvin visited the school in January in preparation of this program, he was overwhelmed by the students greetings as they said, “My Christmas and News Years is on you!” So it was with great joy that we could give each student a gift pack filled with school supplies, crayons and activity coloring book, comb, toothbrush, etc.

Photos: Left is gift packets being unloaded from the vehicle, and right are the packets being stored in the office until distribution.
Students in line to receive their gifts.
Photos: Left is students showing off their gifts, and right is students as they started to sing with joy for what they had received.
This special day was made possible by the many sponsors from Maryland, Minnesota, Oklahoma and Wisconsin. We need to give a special Thanks to the amazing Distant Stars in Oklahoma who provided majority of the support for this year’s school drive campaign! We are so grateful that this day could be shared with all our supporters.

Russ Wood Students give a heartfelt Thanks for their day of celebration!

Meeting the Students at Russ Wood School in Liberia

One of our highlights during our trip to Liberia in September 2013 was to finally meet the students at Russ Wood Christian Academy in Congo Town. The staff and students organized a wonderful Welcome program for our team that completely left us awestruck by students’ enthusiasm to show us talents and knowledge. This post will summarize our visit along with sharing pictures and videos of Liberia’s rising stars.

We were greeted and welcomed with a lively song performed by all the children. Hearing the beautiful voices of the children instantly melted our hearts.

The children opened the program joyfully singing.

After a few announcements, three of the students stood up in front to read from the sampling of reading textbooks we sent last year. Each student was eager to share how well they are performing with their reading abilities. They put the whole hearts into reading their chosen stories. It instantly put smiles on our faces about how much they wanted to show us their accomplishments. Just to be hearing their stories, we felt very pleased knowing we have sent four more boxes of those textbooks as part of our annual shipment. This is schedule to be delivered at the school in December. We hope to send the remaining 24 boxes sometime soon so all the children can be strong readers.

The first up to read was Korlu, who read a story about the Japanese culture from the 5th grade textbook.

Korlu reading her story diligently from start to finish.

The next reader was Ishmeal, one of our scholarship students, reading a story about a West African family from the 6th grade textbook.

Ishmeal reading a his story with clarity while Kelvin looks on.

It is important to note that Ishmeal, who is 11 years old, attended our youth leadership workshop on September 13 and 14. He demonstrated his creativity to the much older participants of this two-day workshop by reciting a parable he wrote.

And lastly was Princess, who read a story about dog from the 2nd grade textbook. During our children’s program last December, Princess (then a first grader) read a story from one of the library books that were sent. She definitely loves to read and we will continue to encourage her with sending more books.

Young Princess doing a great job reading her story.

Next, three of the children got up in front to perform a song that they had worked on together.

More of Russ Wood’s talented singers.

Next our Executive Director Heather Cannon-Winkelman was honored by Ishmeal’s original welcoming speech and presented with flowers.

The program continued with a song by another little girl and then the welcome address to our delegation by the principal, Rev. Matthew Y Kargar.

Another of Russ Wood’s talented singers on the left, and Principal Kargar giving his welcome address on the right.

Next Kelvin Fomba, Uniting Distant Stars (UDS) Co-Founder and Country Director, gave a short talk about the relationship that has been developed by UDS and Russ Wood in the last two years. The children have come to appreciate Kelvin is in the past year, and were actively engaged in his talk. He first asked how many of the students planned to get on the honor roll this year and quite a few raised their hands. He then reiterated the importance of education and encouraged them to work hard with their studies. He ended his talk by introducing our team and given us a chance to a few words.

Elijah Wreh, UDS board member and youth workshop facilitator, got up to address the students and also encouraged them to continue their efforts with their school work.

Kelvin is to the left and Elijah to the right.

Gradieh Wreh, UDS board member and youth workshop facilitator, followed with her appreciation for their warm welcome and shared how excited she was to see them demonstrate their talents.

Finally, Heather got up to thank all the children and staff for their great welcome and talked about the direction UDS is planning to take in supporting their educational efforts.

Gradieh is to the left and Heather to the right.

She ended her talk with a challenge for the next year. She presented a book, donated by Donna Cannon (Heather’s Mom) on how to write a graphic novel, which was especially signed by the author for the Russ Wood students. She explained that they would return next year and hope to see that some of the students have created their own graphic novels. Definitely, some of the students will take on this challenge and we will be delighted to hear what they created.

Principal Kargar holding the book on how to write a graphic novel.

We were pleased that some of the teachers not only expressed their gratitude but also invited us to come back next year. They gave us their prayers for a safe journey home and that we would continue to get the support needed for their students to learn and develop their skills along their educational path.

Some of the teachers giving their vote of thanks and a prayer for our team.

After the program, we were given a tour of the school. This building is also the church, so the space is reconfigured Monday through Friday create classrooms. This school has an average enrollment of 250 students, which adds some difficulty in providing an environment conducive learning .

Heather checking out the office on the left. Principal Kargar, Gradieh and Heather in the center. The world map that was part of 2012 shipment of supplies on the right.

We had hoped to have a picture taken with the children outside the building, but the rain changed our plans. So, after moving the benches and desks out of the center of the room, we were able to take a few group pictures.

Meet the students of Russ Wood Christian Academy.

Here is a more candid photo of the Russ Wood students.

We enjoyed our few hours with the students and staff of Russ Wood. The students clearly demonstrated their hunger to learn and it inspired us to continue to do more. The principal and his wife invited us to their small apartment at the back of the school for a snack and soft drinks after the group photos were taken. They shared how all the students had not started yet, because they were still trying to find sponsors to cover their school fees.

Russ Wood was founded to provide lower cost education to the children within its community, whose families struggle to meet their daily needs and find it difficult to pay their children’s school fees. This information gave Heather, who is currently the sole sponsor of the six students on scholarship, reason to add two more applicants to this program for the next school year that will be dedicated to Russ Wood students. Kelvin will be awarding these two scholarships in April 2014 at Russ Wood’s annual gala. Uniting Distant Star co-sponsored the gala in April 2013 with Russ Wood.

We are also pleased to announce that this year’s shipment should be cleared at the Monrovia’s Free Pport by end of November. We plan our annual children’s party for the last day of school before their holiday break in mid-December, and provides each student a hot meal and a gift packet complements of our generous Distant Stars donors. Our supporters helped reach our 2013 goal of shipping four 14-cubic-foot boxes of school supplies, combs, toothbrushes, toys, and other educational materials. We will post updates and pictures of this day-long event later this year.

Again, we greatly appreciate all our sponsors who have supported the education of these amazing students! We will continue reporting on their activities and achievements throughout the year. Thank you!

If you readers would like to increase the number of scholarships awarded
to these worthy students, please contact us at
[email protected] The scholarships vary by grade level but average about $200 for
the year. It covers tuition, uniform and basic supplies. Also, this
program provides incentives for academic achievement that are awarded at
the first and last semesters of the school year. Please go to our
project page to learn more about our Bright Stars Scholarship program and review the student application form for more details.

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.