Peace on Earth, Good Will to Everyone, and Thank You

Peace on Earth, Good Will to Everyone, and Thank You

It is said that we are each born to this earth with a purpose to do something that will contribute to the betterment of all living things. Our destiny is usually greater than our sense of self, if we are open to the sights and sounds that lead us on this inspirational journey. As we move out into this world, we will unite with others who share the same passion and work together to build community, harmony and peace.

February 2014 Student Celebration at Russ Wood School.

Uniting Distant Stars exemplifies this calling. It started with two people–one U.S. citizen and one Liberian–who combined their shared passion to encourage young people to reach for the Stars. Soon others joined from Minnesota, Oklahoma, Missouri, Wisconsin, North Dakota, Liberia, Cameron, Ghana, Eritrea, and Denmark to support Liberia’s youth to reach their potential with educational scholarships, rejoicing their achievements at the Annual Student Celebration and School Gala, innovative training program such as the Backpacks for Peace, opportunities to connect with their peers in Minnesota via Google Hangout at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum Youth Festival, and much more.

March 2014 Nobel Peace Prize Forum Youth Festival via Google Hangout.

The children and young adults that we have partnered with in Liberia have been very grateful for the community of support that has been developed through Uniting Distant Stars. In the later half of 2014, their lives were abruptly interrupted by Ebola with schools being closed and having their families livelihoods restricted or devastated. However, this crisis did not destroy the dreams and hopes of Liberia’s precious young souls. They have shown their desire to be learning and doing something that allows them to be self-reliant. We are grateful that we can give our young men and women this opportunity with our backpack project.

Completion of the Phase 1 of the backpack project in December 2014. Our team on right made 250 backpacks for our students at Russ Wood Christian Academy. These will be filled with the supplies were shipped Trans-Atlantic in November and given at the 3rd annual Student Celebration sometime in 2015.

What we have accomplished in the last few years would not have been possible without the most generous support of our dedicated donors, board members, volunteers and followers who help share our story. Each and everyone of you is a Shining Star that has brightened the lives of our young people we serve in Liberia. Your kindness and encouragement has filled their hearts with joy and the knowledge that you are with them on this journey. It is so hard to find the right words to express what you have done to make a difference for the our young Star, except to say we are humbly and extremely GRATEFUL and THANKFUL for all of you in making 2014 a successful year!

We wish all of you and your families Peace on Earth, Good Will, and the Happiest and Blessed 2015!

Backpacks for Peace: Project for Learning and Giving

Backpacks for Peace: Project for Learning and Giving

In the spirit of this season of giving, we welcome your contribution to inspire 20 youth in making 300 Backpacks for Peace through our innovative training program. The cost of making a backpack is approximately $10, so a generous gift of $50 will get us that much closer to our goal. For the second year in the row, Uniting Distant Stars will invite some of Liberia’s promising young men and women leaders to participate in the March 6, 2015 Nobel Peace Prize Forum Youth Festival organized by youthrive, a Minnesota-based non-profit.

Three Liberian youth modeling our backpacks in each color–white, blue and red
The Backpacks for Peace project will instill peace building within the community and re-spark their creative flame by using recycled plastic to make the backpacks.  The first phase of the program focused on teaching four trainees on how to sew the backpacks and care for the sewing machines as future trainers of this program. The goal of the first phase was to make 250 backpacks to be given to the students at our adopt-a-school program as part of our 4th Annual School Supply Drive.

Video shows launch of our first phase of this project on 09/26/14; narrated by Kelvin Fomba, UDS Co-founder and Country Director.

Twenty young men and women from primary to post-secondary education will launch the second phase of our backpack training program the beginning of January 2015 by making 300 bags that they will give to the beneficiaries of the Straight From the Heart Center in Liberia. This center was founded by Agnes Fallah Kamara-Umunna to provide a space for rehabilitation, reintegration, and reconciliation for youth who were on all sides of Liberia’s Civil War. Agnes is the author of the book “And Peace Still Did Not Come: A Memoir of Reconciliation”.

Photos: Left is project team lead and professional tailor Charles Mamba sitting at his machine on left that he has donated for this project. Next two photos show three of the four trainees.
We have already raised $590 towards our goal of $3,000 to buy four more sewing machines and the supplies such as zippers and thread, to make 300 backpacks. Our partner—African Dream Academy—has been donating the recycled plastic drinking water sachets, the primary material for the backpacks.
Unit Cost
Total Cost
4 each
600 yards
3 cartons
5 each
Machine needles
3 packets
Machine oil
8 bottles
Cloth Lining
3 rolls

Your contribution is not only tax-deductible; it is also developing a sustainable youth training program that teaches life-long skills in sewing and marketing a product needed by many Liberian youth. The need for rebuilding from the Liberian Civil War is still relevan, and it is even more urgent now due to the Ebola epidemic that recently devastated many families in Liberia.

Our team has been working hard and made nearly 200 backpacks when this photo was taken.
Please support our Backpacks for Peace service learning project with a donation by PayPal or by check to Uniting Distant Stars, Inc. and mail to:

Uniting Distant Stars, Inc.
4010 Lawndale LN N
Plymouth, MN 55446

Thank You For Your Generous Support
Discovering Cultural Connections

Discovering Cultural Connections

It is amazing when you break free from your “comfort” zone and take a moment to talk with someone from a different culture or nation. This is an opportunity to learn more about another person’s life and how they view the world. It is during these conversations that you can discover the beauty of their culture and how it relates to your own. This is why Uniting Distant Stars (UDS) is more than just an organization. We are also a global community connecting people from different cultures and backgrounds to share ideas and join hands in making this a better world. 

This past March was a time that UDS experienced many cultural connections. As we had shared in an early post, we connected youth in Liberia to their peers in Minnesota via Google Hangout at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum on March 7.  That same day our executive director–Heather Cannon-Winkelman–was invited to co-present at the Dakota County Technical College (DCTC) Multicultural Student Leadership Association (MSLA) Event about U.S. and Liberia Relations. 

Event Flyer

Plus in conjunction with the MSLA event, we did a 9-day Facebook promotion from March 1 to 9 called Uniting Distant Stars Jeopardy. This promo provided one question per day about the History, Geography, Famous People, and other fun facts showing the relationship between the U.S and Liberia (and West Africa). Whoever answered the most questions right, would be featured in our blog. So this post will conclude with some background of our winner–Joyce Mallery–and her thoughts about some questions we asked her.  

MSLA Leadership Team. Joyce is the third from the left with Branko third from the right.

First here is a quick highlight of the March 7 event at the DCTC. Heather had the honor of co-presenting with Branko Saah Tambah, a Liberian student and current MSLA President. Branko and Heather shared their knowledge, experience, research and photos of the “Complex Historical Relationship: Liberia and the United States” (click here to view their presentation). Throughout their presentation they interwove “Test Your Knowledge” questions to see what their audience knew about what links these two nations together. The presentation opened their eyes to a part of U.S. history that is often not taught within schools.  The students afterwards shared their feedback on the information they gained from this intriguing presentation about the historical ties between Liberia and the U.S.

Pictured are MSLA members along with Heather and Branko who are holding Certificates of Appreciation.

Now to our Uniting Distant Stars Jeopardy winner Joyce Mallery, who is another a DCTC student and MSLA member. Joyce has also known Heather from when they worked together for many years at Mystic Lake Casino Hotel in Prior Lake, Minnesota. When Joyce learned that Heather had returned from her second year living in Liberia in 2010, she invited her to present at their Multicultural event that spring. Joyce was first in the line-up of presenters where she shared her discovery of her Native American heritage and her quest to find her tribal roots. 

Joyce was the one that connected Branko with Heather, who met for the first time last year. She again played an active role in this year’s MSLA event with the planning some of the logistics and designing Branko and Heather’s certificates. It was through her discussions with Branko that she became more interested in the Liberian culture and wanted to learn more. This why she was very eager to play our Jeopardy game and answered 8 out of the 9 questions right.

In getting to know Joyce better we asked her to share something about her educational background along with her MSLA involvement. 

Over the past five years, I have been a full-time college student at DCTC working on several degrees and certificates, and participating in several clubs on campus while working full-time at Mystic Lake. In May 2012, I graduated with honors and earned three AAS Degrees in Graphic Design Technology, Multimedia/Web Design, and Electronic Publishing. After graduating I made the decision to start my own business, but still had a hunger to learn. So, I chose to remain a student at DCTC and for the second and final time time, I will be graduating this May with honors and earning a AAS in Social Media Marketing Specialist along with certificates in Entrepreneurship, Small Business Management, Digital Imaging and Social Media Marketing Specialist. 
While at DCTC, I have been involved in several student clubs. One of my favorite ones has been the MSLA. I was initially drawn to this club, because of my curiosity and the desire to learn more about other cultures. As a seasoned employee at Mystic Lake Casino, I had the opportunity to work with a very culturally diverse population and found that my MSLA membership helped me to better communicate with my fellow team members. This is why I have been actively involved with this diverse student group for over four years along with serving as the President, Vice President and Secretary. I have also played a strategic role in planning our annual celebrations as well as as many different events throughout the school year including the recent Liberian/American Connection event. 

Very impressive Joyce! From reading her background, she has clearly demonstrated the importance of education both in her academia and everyday life. She also represents someone who discovered her Star potential and what it takes to meet and exceed her own goals. Through Joyce’s example, it is reminder to everyone that it is never too late to realize one’s dream. We would like to extend our Congratulations to Joyce for all her outstanding accomplishments at DCTC!

Next, we wanted to gain some insight from Joyce by asking her seven questions as follows:

1) What does it mean to be a global citizen; how do you see yourself in this role and why?

To me, being a global citizen means identifying with being a part of an emerging world community. I see myself as wanting to learn and being involved in helping to build a “beloved global community.” By sharing my culture while learning about others, we can open our minds on what we have discovered about each person we interact with. This knowledge can then be passed on to the people in our own networks.

2) What is your cultural background and how does this help you relate with your MSLA team and our global community?

My cultural background began with my earliest memories of being taken to the reservation to visit with the elders. Although I do not know of my tribal origin, I do know I have Native American decent in my family heritage. I have always wanted to know more and have sought out learning about the Native American ways. For example, the ceramics that I have created and painted have been of eagles, bears and wolves that came to me from my heart and dreams instead of pictures. My knowledge of Native American beliefs and crafts have helped me relate with others in my MSLA team; as our current Vice President is also Native American. By being a member of this group, we are equally curious of each others backgrounds and quite comfortable with asking questions to gain more knowledge of each one’s culture. It has also allowed me to feel that I am part of the global community and want to seek more and more information as I expand my network.

3) As a MSLA member, how does one’s leadership skills improve by learning about other cultures and how has it enhanced yours? 

My leadership skills have improved greatly by being immersed with other cultures, because I’m stronger and more confident. Before I was shy and afraid to ask other people about their cultures. By taking the time to learn and understand another
person’s background, I have found that there are similarities within my
culture and theirs. This has helped me better connect with my fellow members and also earn their respect as a leader, because I acknowledge their unique experience and how it better enhances our community.

4) In playing the jeopardy game about the historical connections between Liberia and the U.S., what was the most profound thing you learned and why? 

I would have to say it was the question from day 6: “What wealthy mariner from Massachusetts, who was half Wampanoag Native American and half African American (decedent from the Ashanti tribe in Ghana), was the first to transport freed and free-born African Americans to West Africa (landed at Sierra Leone)?” Although the search was difficult, I finally did find the answer which was Paul Cuffee (or Cuffe). This question made me discover several things that I had no idea from our history. During this research, I found myself reading various articles that increased my knowledge of what happened and a bit of history about the experiences of free-born African Americans.

5) As a student who is realizing your Star potential and pursuing your dreams, what advice would you give young people who are facing various obstacles and adversaries in continuing their education or obtaining a job? 

My advice would be to never be afraid to learn and keep doing it! If you face an obstacle, never give up! With a lot of thought, hard work, and help from others, these challenges can be overcome and you will be able to advance forward with much more knowledge and confidence than you when you were first confronted with them. Never be afraid to ask for help, because it will always be there! Sometimes it is not there right away, but help will be eventually come to you. This holds true with your education and job search. Also what you learn along the way can be applied in discovering a solution to your problem. Remember to hold your head high and walk with confidence always! Again have faith and never give up!

6) In following and advocating for Uniting Distant Stars, what do you think is its greatest strength and why? 

The greatest strength I have seen so far has been the leadership and the willingness of the people involved to push forward the various programs. They do everything possible to ensure the young students at Russ Wood will have the best chance of getting an education and strengthen their knowledge.  This will allow these students someday to go forward with their own dreams and share what they have learned with others.

7) As you look to the future, what would you like to do to make a difference in the lives of others? 

As I look towards my future, I would like to help others by passing on my knowledge, sharing my skills, volunteering my time and talent, and giving financial support when I can. I am who I am today, because of what others have done for me by supporting, encouraging and guiding me throughout my life. So, that is why I can’t think of a better thing to do than to pay it forward. 

Thank you Joyce for your sharing your thoughts with us today! We are grateful for your support and increasing involvement with Uniting Distant Stars!  

Liberian Youth Virtually Connect With Peers in Minnesota

March 7 was a very exciting day for our small and humble organization. We had been invited by youthrive, a Minnesota-based organization, on January 17, to have Liberian students participate in the Nobel Peace Prize Forum Youth Festival (NPPF) at Augsburg College via Google+ Hangout Connected Classrooms. We extended this opportunity to iLab Liberia since they had high-speed internet and the ideal space to hold this event. The featured speaker for the NPPF’s morning session was Liberia’s 2011 Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee, who has presented several times to Minnesotan youth.

Liberian youth at iLab in Sinkor, Liberia, watching Nobel Laureate share her story at Augsburg College in Minnesota via Google Hangout. (Photo by Rodney Johnson)
Uniting Distant Stars (UDS) and iLab Liberia co-hosted this event, and each organization invited youth to participate. We had nearly 50 students from various elementary and high schools, and University of Liberia. The program lasted about two hours and started at 9:30AM (CST) in Minnesota; 3:30PM (GMT) in Liberia.

Luther Jeke of iLab Liberia talking with the youth. (Photo by Rodney Johnson)
This was NPPF’s first year of using Google+ Hangout, so two tests were conducted earlier in the week that was coordinated by Edwin Irwin from youthrive and Mark Holterhaus from the NPPF team. The first test was on Tuesday and it took a few minutes before we could connect Liberia on hangout. From this test, Teemu Ropponen, iLab’s Executive Director, assessed what was needed to ensure the best connection. He and his team hooked up one computer to a projector for the students to view the activities in Minnesota and connected a video camera so the Liberian youth could be seen on the screen at Augsburg. Their efforts showed perfect results during the second test on Wednesday.

Liberia’s students waving to the camera. Youthrive’s Ed Irwin orchestrated the activities from Minnesota and cued Liberia when they would up on the screen at Augsburg. (Screen shot by Heather)
UDS Executive Director, Kelvin Fomba, quickly prepared our youth on what this event was about, because this was new territory for them. He explained that they would be participating live at this event through the internet. Most did not comprehend what he was saying, because they thought they would be just watching a video. Well once they were sitting in iLab’s conference room, they soon discovered that their presence was being acknowledged by the MCs at the forum in Minnesota. So, this was a very exciting and life changing experience for all youth.

Students watching Leymah present at Augsburg College in Minnesota. Left photo has Teemu Ropponen, iLab’s Executive Director, in the background by the wall. (Photos by Rodney Johnson)
Left shows some students taken photos with their cell phones (Photo by Rodney Johnson). Right photo shows students on the live Google feed (Screen shot by Heather).
Heather Cannon-Winkelman, UDS Executive Director, was connected privately via Hangout at Dakota County Technical College. She was co-presenting at this college later that morning for the Multicultural Student Leadership Association (MSLA) with a Liberian Student and MSLA President, Branko Saah Tambah, on Liberia and U.S. relations. She was able to see and hear the activities from both the Minnesota and Liberia sides. She took some the screen shots from her computer that are shared in this post. Interestingly, when the Russ Wood students saw her image appear on the screen, they started saying “there’s Heather.” So this made it more real for them.

Left of student watching Leymah (Photo by Rodney Johnson) and right photo of group from Heather’s perspective from her screen shot.
One of the highlights of Friday’s forum was when Leymah asked to have the lights turned off at Augsburg’s Kennedy Center. She then requested that the youth use their cell phones to light up the room. Liberia followed Leymah’s lead by turning off the lights and displaying their cell phones. Next Leymah proceeded to explain that though this room was dark, it was the young people like them that were the light. This definitely was an inspiring moment for the youth on both sides of the Atlantic.

Left are students in Liberia seeing the Kennedy Center illuminated by Minnesota peers’ cell phones (photo by Rodney Johnson). Right shows the Liberian students holding their cell phones (screen
shot by Heather).
Once Leymah was done with her talk, the floor was opened to questions and answers. About three to four students in Minnesota were able to ask her a question. Then Liberia was given their chance to ask the last one. It was one of our scholarship students from Russ Wood, Ishmael, that represented his peers by asking her a question. His asked Leymah how could Liberian youth become peace builders. This was a great opportunity for this rising star. Ishmael, who is about 12 years old, is a creative talent who writes his own parables and songs, MC’d last month’s second annual student celebration, and recited one of his parables to the participants–ranging from 16 to early 30’s–at our September 2013 workshop on creative and innovative workshop.

Left photo is Ishmael in front of the camera waiting for his cue (photo by Rodney Johnson). Photo is Ismael asking his question to Leymah (screen shot by Heather).
After Leymah answered Ishmael’s question, she mentioned that she knows the name of his school and would visit them when she was in Liberia next. Both Uniting Distant Stars and Russ Wood Students will gladly welcome her visit.

Leymah Gbowee addressing the Minnesotan students at Augsburg’s Kennedy Center and Liberian students via Google Connected Classrooms. (Screen shot by Heather).
Since iLab provided the space, UDS brought the refreshments. Some of our youth prepared the sandwiches and ensured everyone was served. This team of youth was led by another of our scholarship students, Princess, who will be graduating this year. Her team made enough sandwiches that allowed the youth to have seconds. When the program ended, our youth helped clean-up before they left iLab’s facilities. We encourage our youth to volunteer their time and talent for such events.

Left photo is the food table. Center photo is Princess enjoying what she helped prepare. Right photo shows youth in line to get a bottle of ice cold soft drink. (Photos by Rodney Johnson).
The virtual event was a great success. Kelvin was overwhelmed by number of students who expressed their gratitude for being able to participate in such a program. If you think about, these Liberian boys, girls, young men and women were able to connect to the greater world for about two hours. This experience is something they will not forget and hopefully they can do more of in the future.

Kelvin in the background with some of our youth. (Photo by Rodney Johnson)
UDS is equally grateful for this opportunity that connected Minnesota based and Liberia based organizations together. We have many Thanks for Maddy Wegner and Edwin Irwin at youthrive for inviting us to be part of it, and also for Teemu Ropponen and Luther Jeke at iLab Liberia along with rest of their team for proving their space and expertise. This amazing accomplishment can be summed up by a quote from Mattie Stepanek… “Unity is strength… when there is teamwork and collaboration, wonderful things can be achieved.