Did you take secondary school shop classes?

Did you take secondary school shop classes?

​Your continued support is making a huge impact on the lives of children and youth in Liberia! Your investment in their knowledge and skill building at our training center is an investment into their futures as builders, educators, innovators and leaders. You have raised $2,090 (38%%) towards our goal of $5,500. 
You still can double your impact with our Facebook Fundraiser today. Click this link and make your end-of-year tax-deductible gift. Your gift will be matched dollar for dollar: Your $10 donation becomes $20. Your $25 donation becomes $50. Your $100 donation becomes $200.
Your generosity puts books in our library, computers in our lab, and sewing machines in our classroom. 
 ​
Our headline today “Did you take secondary school shop classes?” is the question relating to why Uniting Distant Stars is providing vocational training programs. Depending on your generation, you may have benefited by shop classes in junior and senior high schools. You were given hands-on skills on how to use woodworking machines like lathes and saws. Or you may have had an opportunity to work on machinery gaining mechanical skills. During the first of half of the 1980s, I had wood shop classes in 7th and 8th grades and power mechanics class in my senior year. These skills carried out through my adult life when I had to install a new faucet in my kitchen and bathroom sinks or do minor repairs around my home. Also, I am one of countless students who learn best with our hands. We loved to hear how these classes benefited you so we can share with our young students in Liberia.
In talking with one of our donors Branko Tambah, who grew up in Liberia. He had the opportunity to attend the only vocational training high school–​Booker Washington Institute (BWI)–in Kakata (city in Margibi County). He shared that no other junior or high schools in Liberia provided shop classes for their students. Through his courses at BWI, he learned how to do many things with his hands to where he is now pursuing his own business construction in Minnesota. ​
Booker Washington Institute is named after “Educator Booker T. Washington was one of the foremost African-American leaders of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, founding the Tuskegee Normal and Industril Institute, now known as Tuskegee University (citation). Photo taken by Heather during 2011 mission trip.
​Our co-founder and country director, Kelvin Fomba, in Liberia recently shared how the trades make our lives better. He said, “Who built the roads you drive on? who built the buildings you sleep, work and worship in?, who keeps your car working?, who maintains the plumbing and electricity?” The answer is the same…someone who was trained in a vocational trade.
Uniting Distant Stars will start in January our first vocational training courses at our new center. As you will recall, our youth put their hands together this year to get this new center open. As you see in the photo collage below, they cleaned it, they painted the interior and exterior walls, and they helped with some of the renovations, and cleaned it again after the work was done. They wanted to show you how important our programs mean to them. They love having the opportunity to learn valuable skills to either seek employment or entrepreneurship. 
Your commitment inspired our youth to help prepare our new training center for opening in 2016.
​Our year-end campaign is increasing the materials to provide for this training in January. Please help young Liberians learn a trade by donating online and match your gift through our Facebook Fundraising (click here) or send a check payable to Uniting Distant Stars at:
Uniting Distant Stars
4010 Lawndale LN N
Plymouth, MN 55446
Thank you whole-heartily for being a valuable Star Supporter!!!

My Recent Trip to Liberia – Part 3

Happy New Year Everyone! I hope that 2012 brings about great adventures, new possibilities and fulfilled dreams! Though we live in a rapidly advancing and changing world, we need to take some moments to breathe and appreciate the many splendors of life…otherwise another year will slip by before we know it. So, as this new year moves forward, I wish you all the best as you start each day with a blank canvass to create a life that that each one of you deserves.

Since my last post, I was able to share my experience with some of my supporters on December 15. It was an attentive crowd of retired women, who many have been active throughout their lives in community outreach and most of them continue to find ways to serve as volunteers or activists. I gave them an overview of my PowerPoint that I had presented in Liberia and then followed with pictures and video clips of my trip.

We enjoyed a thoughtful Q and A session afterwards discussing the challenges and opportunities for Liberia. Based on their interest from my presentation, they decided to follow it by watching the documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” that they will view this week. This is a powerful film that shows the sacrifice and courage of Liberian women–both Muslim and Christian–who demonstrated for peace and ushered in the end of a long and devastating civil war.

Now I will return to finishing this three-part post by sharing my second and final week in Liberia.

Before leaving Kakata on Sunday, November 7, many of the pastors were invited to various churches to give the sermon. Most of the pastors committed to preaching at two churches so they could reach out to more people. I was asked to join one of the pastors at the two churches he had committed to. I was invited to give a brief statement, which I thanked them for their hospitality and shared what had been accomplished during our week in Kakata.

Afterwards, we returned to the guest house to gather and pack our luggage before stopping at Kakata’s City Hall to say our final good-byes at their closing program. Since we did not have to much time to visit, one pastor went in on our behalf  to express our gratitude and farewell. The rest of us remained outside saying goodbye to people that we had made connections during the week.

Pastor Destaye, Hawa and Naomi standing by our team’s luggage before departing the
Booker Washington Institute guest house (courtesy of Pastor Crawford’s camera).

As we were heading out of town, we made one vital stop at the police station to secure our luggage that was stacked in the back of the pickup. Our favorite police chief came to our rescue and borrowed us some tarpaulin and rope, which some of her officers helped tie down our luggage. As we waited, I treated everyone to an ice cold glass-bottled soft drink before we departing for Monrovia.

Kakata’s Police Chief Goldoe overseeing the securing of our luggage
outside the police station (courtesy of Pastor Crawford’s camera).

Enjoying a cold drink while taking this group shot
(photo taken from Pastor Crawford’s camera)

Pastor Destaye and I cheering a successful week!
 (photo taken by Pastor Crawford’s camera)

We arrived in Monrovia before dusk and joined our team to have dinner before settling into our respective accommodations. The men resided at the home of a Liberian man, whose family still lives in Minnesota, and is close friends with some of the pastors. He provided free lodging for the men and also free nightly meals for the entire team. The women also had free lodging at the newly built home of one of our teammates, Gladys. Our two locations were within 10 minutes of each other in the Dwazon area.

Our location did provide one challenge, because we were on the eastern outskirts of the metropolitan area and our travel time could be anywhere from one hour to four hours (going one-way) factoring the time of day and traffic congestion.

On a side note, let me briefly illustrate where we stayed using this Map of Liberia (click here). Monrovia is located in Montserrado County (third one from the left along the Atlantic in yellow). I was staying along the coastal highway in the eastern part of Montserrado, bordering Margibi County. The international airport is on the same highway heading east to the border of Grand Bassa County, which is indicated by an airplane icon near the place marker for Robertsfield. Furthermore, Kakata is due north from the airport (not quite one inch distance) in the center of Margibi County. I hope this illustration gives you a better idea of where I was moving around during my two weeks in Liberia.

Now getting back on topic. The following day (Monday) was scheduled a free day, so I setup two meetings.
The first one was with THINK (Touching Humanity In Need of Kindness) Liberia, which was located about 15 minutes from where I was staying. Since our group had limited transportation, THINK was most generous in transporting me to and from my location. THINK is an organization that I had been following on Facebook for awhile, because I was interested in their work in helping former child (girl) soldiers with education and basic life skills training. So, I was eager to learn more about their program.

I was able to visit both their office and the site of their training program (see the pictures below). They have converted a single family house into a training center and dormitory for about 20 girls in their program. About half of the girls have babies or toddlers, which they are welcomed and nurtured by everyone. THINK’s program offers academics, life and job skills training to the girls who have suffered one or more of the GIANT problems caused by the civil war that Rosana Schaak, THINK’s Executive Director defined as violence, separation, prostitution, illiteracy, addiction, slavery, and HIV/AIDs.

THINK’s Office
THINK’s training and dormitory facility
Main classroom for academics and life skills training
Sewing classroom
Outdoor kitchen – they use a ‘coal pot’ for their cooking, which is the apparatus with smoke rising  up
They used bunk beds so that they could comfortable house all the girls.

My second appointment was with the American Refugee Committee (ARC) Country Director-Abraham Leno. I have been volunteering at ARC headquarters in Minneapolis for one year. I was aware of ARC’s work in Liberia from my previous trips, so I was looking forward to this meeting. We had planned to meet around lunch time after our team checked out the site of the next conference on Bushrod Island (just north of downtown Monrovia) at The Bethel Bushrod Island Missions Church (see picture below).

 The Bethel Bushrod Island Missions Church (photo taken by Pastor Crawford)

This only took about an hour, so I arranged for Abraham to pick
me up at a Money Gram near Liberia’s Free Port. Well, our plans were quickly derailed when a riot broke out not far from the ARC headquarters in Congo Town (suburb east of downtown Monrovia) as Abraham was on his way to pick me up. One of the political parties whose headquartered in Congo Town organized this demonstration to oppose the October 11 election results for the president and their participation in the runoff election the following day. Sadly, two or three individuals were killed as the situation became tense between the demonstrators and the police. Gratefully, Abraham and his driver were able to find safety, and we were also able to reschedule and meet on Friday.

Strangely, after I called one of the pastors that was in the area to come get me at Money Gram the phone service went dead. Our team was using the same telecommunications company, which also happened to be located in Congo Town across from the riot area. So somehow during the chaos their service was comprised for a few hours.

The communication may have been down, but it did not stop us from making our dinner appointment at the Bethel Pastor’s house in Brewerville (small town north of Monrovia’s metropolitan area) where we enjoyed a delicious home cooked meal. It was now time to make our journey home and rest after a long, exhausting day. However, we soon discovered that the riots diverted the traffic from downtown Monrovia to Somalia drive causing a major traffic jam. This two-lane road turned into six lanes as everyone was heading the same direction going nowhere fast.

This was not a strange occurrence to me, since I had lived along this stretch during my second year in Liberia. So as we crept along, I kept telling my fellow passengers that eventually we will meet up with the oncoming traffic. And sure enough, we did at the New Georgia Estate junction (where I lived). It was here that we were now reduced to one lane by the new traffic controllers (i.e. former combatants). Normally, the police are in control since there is no traffic lights; however, when situations like this happen they give up and head home for the evening.

Well, it took us about four hours to get back home. My fellow teammates were overwhelmed by what they experienced, so we decided that everyone must be prepared to bring along what they need for the day, because we would not return until the revival meetings ended at night.

The next day (Tuesday) was the runoff election for the Presidential candidates. We started off the morning in prayer asking for peace as the Liberian people headed to the polls. Also, there was much reflection on reconciliation and forgiveness for the Liberian people. Many of my Liberian teammates had experienced the war before finding refuge in the U.S. and had lost many loved ones. They too were still haunted by the realities of the brutal civil war and knew it was time to forgive those who harmed them and families. It seemed that there was a great weight lifted in the room from this prayer vigil, and I hope that they were all able to move on to the next phase of healing.

This session ended about lunch time, so the rest of the day was considered free time. Some of the pastors headed back to Kakata to finalize some plans for the land of the future library. The rest of us stayed back and took sometime to relax. I joined some of the group by walking down to the beach. Then I went to my room and took a much needed nap since I was working on an average of four hours of sleep a night.

Liberia’s Atlantic Shoreline

As the day ended everyone in Liberia could breathe again, because peace was maintained at each polling station. Regrettably, some Liberians opt out of voting due to fears from rumors that more riots were planned. Regardless of the results of the election, I believe that most Liberians were happy that they were able to maintain a peaceful election (minus the one incident) and this is another positive sign that this nation is looking towards a better future.

For the next two days, we held our conferences and revival meetings at Bethel Bushrod Island Missions Church. The crowds were much smaller than in Kakata, because Monrovia is the economic center for Liberia. Most people are either at their jobs, market tables or hustling for work so they can provide for their families. Also, the city is grossly over populated, so finding a taxi or bus is quite difficult.

Here  I am presenting to a group at Bethel Bushrod Island Mission Church.

On Thursday, I was asked by Hawa (our dental assistant) to help her as she would clean teeth for the conference participants. Well, I soon found out that there would be no cleanings since everyone she saw needed teeth removed…usually a minimum of two. My job was to hold the heads of the patient as Hawa worked to extract the infected tooth. As I held the person’s head I could feel the pressure as the tooth resisted being removed. Please don’t be alarmed here, each person received Novocain to numb the pain and then given pain medicine and antibiotics for aftercare.

Here is Hawa extracting a tooth as another woman hold the head of the patient.

Hawa explaining to the patient about what she should expect in the next few days about pain and discomfort.

We concluded our conferences and revival meetings at Providence Baptist Church located downtown Monrovia. Originally we had planned to have our morning/afternoon conferences on Friday and Saturday, but we cancelled the second day to attend the funeral for the mother of one of the pastors of our group. This was his first time home in about 15 years and two weeks before he arrived his mother passed away. So, his return to Liberia was bittersweet.

Providence Baptist Church in the background, which is the oldest church in Liberia. From left to right Rev. Goba, Gladys, Hawa, Rev. Kaffey, Rev.
Dr. Samuel B. Reeves, Jr. (Providence’s senior pastor), Rev. Dr. Tabla, Pastor Crawford, me, Rev. Dr. Howard, and Rev. Collins.

So, Friday was our last day of conferences and it was decided that I would present to the combined group since mine was focused more on healing and reconciliation–the theme of our conference. This was my third time presenting during these two weeks and I enjoyed getting the feedback from the participants. Again, as I stated in my last post I will share my presentation in an upcoming post.

Giving an opening prayer before giving my final presentation.

Saturday was the final day of our mission and we ended it strong. The revival meeting that night focused on reconciliation by having representatives of all 16 ethnic groups come up to the front. I believe that all groups were represented as they joined hands and formed a circle. This was a powerful moment for everyone there that night and hopefully this will continue.

Prayer vigil for healing and reconciliation among Liberia’s ethnic groups.
The circle of unity and hope for Liberia’s future

Wow! Just like that the two weeks were over and I would be making the long journey home. So, on my final day in Liberia I was invited to attend the services at World Harvest Church in New Georgia Estate. This is a family-run church (Pastors Stephen and Annette Tour) that has seen tremendous growth since I left in January 2010. I was asked to make a brief presentation, which I shared with the congregation the highlights of our team’s mission and how each and everyone of them can be an instrument of peace and reconciliation for Liberia.

World Harvest Church in New Georgia Estate. This was taken shortly after I presented Pastor Tour with a new world map, which they were in need of one.

After the service, I was invited to lunch at the Tour’s house and got to visit with their family for awhile. Before I knew it was time to change into comfortable clothes and head for the airport, which I was escorted by Pastor Stephen and my Liberian family. I was able to say my final goodbyes and proceed into the terminal for what seemed to be an extra long check in process. While I was riding the bus to my flight, I saw the most beautiful sight of two international airliners on the tarmac, which has not occurred since before the war. To me this was another sign that things are progressing positively for Liberia.

As I conclude this post, I want to Thank all my supporters again for making this trip possible. It was great to be back in my second home and being able to see some positive signs that gives me hope that things are changing for the better. It is my wish that I can return soon to work in the capacity of empowering and equipping disadvantaged young Liberian adults to become contributing members of society. Blessings to all!

My Recent Trip to Liberia – Part 1

I had an unexpected surprise this fall when I was invited to be part of a two-week mission trip to Liberia that was organized by the Liberian Ministers Association (LMA) of Minnesota. I was overwhelmed with excitement of the possibility of going back to Liberia, but was also faced with having limited funds and little time to prepare. So, I took the bold step and found 19 thoughtful and generous sponsors who helped me with my travel expenses. Fortunately, our team was able to minimize our accommodation expenses so I donated 20% of what I raised to the LMA for the mission’s purpose, a Healing and Reconciliation Conference.

Now many of you might be shaking your head and wondering what this post is about since I had not publicly announce this trip to Liberia. This was clearly not a leisure trip and it did not allow much free time to visit my friends in Liberia. So, I apologize for those who are reading about this for the first time and hope that you will forgive me.

This trip was my shortest, but also had some interesting twists. I landed in Liberia on October 30 without my two checked bags–one was donated to the medical team from Community of Angels and the other was my clothes and personal items. These bags somehow decided to travel the world and had stops in Paris, Casablanca and who knows where else. This was not a pleasant surprise, but fortunately my team mates were able to supply me with some clothes as the saga of the missing luggage lingered for the next ten days. To keep this story brief, the donated bag was picked up on November 2 and I received my bag on November 9, which I was leaving in four days.

Luckily one of my strengths is adaptability, and I was able to make the most of the rest of my trip without my things. We spent the majority of the first week in Kakata, a small city about 90-minute drive from Monrovia (Liberia’s Capital City). For seven nights we stayed at the Booker Washington Institute (BWI) Guest House just on the outskirts of Kakata. This institution was founded in the same spirit as the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama by its founder Dr. Booker T Washington.

The following 12 pictures are of the campus and my guest room:

 Entrance to BWI
 The main building near the entrance
 View of the campus

 Another view of the campus

 And another view of the campus

 BWI Guest House. My room was on the second floor on the 
left side…the air conditioner was not hooked up.
 Second floor dining room where we had our breakfast and evening meals, which 
were prepared by the some of the pastors’ wives in the community.
 Second floor living room where had our morning meetings

 The room I shared with another team member

 I am always happy when there is fan.

 Bathroom with running water

 The water pressure was quite low, so bucket baths were the way to go

One of the main highlights of our trip was meeting the U.S. Ambassador–Linda Thomas-Greenfield–to Liberia. As one of my first assignments, I was able to arrange our meeting for October 31 prior to our departure. Since our team was so large, we met at the Public Diplomacy Building on the second floor in the Colin Powell Conference Room. This change in venue meant that there was minimal security and the opportunity for photographs. Here is a picture of our group with Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield.

This was an insightful meeting, because the Ambassador shared with us about their activities with the elections. They had been actively engaged with the young people sensitizing them on the meaning of democracy and how their vote should not be bought or manipulated. She and her staff kept in close contact with many youth leaders so that they could diffuse any non-peaceful acts being instigated by any of the political parties.

The Ambassador also mentioned that she and her staff were part of the many observers of the October 11 Election at some 50 voting sites. She personally oversaw the vote count at Waterside, which is a section of the City of Monrovia. She was quite dismayed by the accusations of voter fraud when each site had both national and international observers present to ensure transparency with the counting.

She also shared some of the other activities the Embassy has been involved in. One of the main ones is education. They had about 39 Peace Corp Volunteers with all but four teaching in 24 high schools in Liberia. These volunteers were also training and certifying Liberian teachers.

The Peace Corp’s return to Liberia in 2008 was one of many signs that the peace is progressing in the right direction. The Peace Corp had served faithfully in Liberia from 1962 to 1990, but were disbanded during the civil war. Another positive sign that was shared by Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield was the return of the families to the Embassy. Her face lit up when she commented on the number of babies that have been born to the staff members and how nice it was to have children back at the Embassy.

The Ambassador stressed one interesting point that aligned with our mission’s purpose–healing and reconciliation. She stated that most, if not all, Liberians were dealing with trauma issues. This prompted me to remember an article I had read over a year ago titled “One Psychiatric Hospital for 3 Million People, Liberia Plan for Change.” So, I asked her “isn’t there one psychiatrist for the entire nation?” Her response was that person was not practicing, because he was working at the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare. This inspired one of our team members, the LMA’s current executive director, to reconsider getting his PhD in psychology.

Clearly, 14 years of civil war would not only leave physical scars, but also mental ones. This reality made our mission to promote healing and reconciliation even more important. The task at hand was not easy, because the elections opened some old wounds and those hurts still impact the lives of many Liberians.

This is where I will conclude this post. Next week, I will continue with part 2 and share more about our conferences in Kakata and Monrovia. Until then, peace to all!