Ukrainian teens from an exchange program enjoyed a day of fun in Shakopee last weekend, thanks to Valleyfair and Shakopee Rotary.
The teens are participating in YouLEAD (standing for Youth Leadership Engagement and Development Program), an international exchange program where young leaders strengthen their civic engagement and leadership development skills.
Eighteen teenagers from all over Ukraine are participating in this year’s program, spending five weeks in Minnesota. YouLEAD was formed in 2012 and traditionally exchanges teens from Ukraine and Minnesota for a few weeks. This year’s group is a little different — there was no group of Minnesotans to take to Ukraine, and all the participants from Ukraine have been impacted in some way by the country’s war with Russia.
Last weekend’s trip to Shakopee looked to give the kids a day of fun during their visit.
“To be able to extend those kinds of meaningful experiences to a group of students … during a time where their lives have been so heavily impacted and giving them one day of being able to experience new and exciting forms of entertainment — that’s why we do this,” said Raul Rehnborg, Valleyfair Vice President and general manager.
Leaders in Shakopee got involved in this year’s program through Irina Fursman, co-founder of Global Synergy Group, the nonprofit running YouLEAD. Fursman and her husband, also a co-founder, were familiar with Shakopee Rotary through connections with Sheila McNeill, Shakopee Rotary’s youth program director.
McNeill was also asked to get involved a few weeks prior by a Maple Grove city staff member hosting one of the teens.
McNeill said Shakopee Rotary members were overwhelmingly in support of participating.
“Here we are excited as a club to be able to do this and help these students because we are aware of the kind of difficulties and challenges their country is going through,” she said.
From there, McNeill spoke with Rehnborg, also a member of Shakopee Rotary. The two discussed options of making this opportunity a partnership with the rotary group and Valleyfair.
“We jumped at the chance,” Rehnborg said about involving Valleyfair. “We thought, ‘Wow, what a great chance to give these people a memorable experience during their visit’ and bring some more joy to their lives, particularly given what they’re all going through back home.”
Valleyfair and Shakopee Rotary members welcomed the exchange program participants to Valleyfair last Saturday, where they spent the entire afternoon and evening immersing themselves in an amusement park setting.
Fursman said this experience was also a great way for the teens to bond with their host parents and siblings, as some of them also came along for the day. “We try to offer opportunities for students and their host families to spend time together,” she said. “They’ll get to experience all this, build friendships and have a little bit of fun over the weekend.”
The teens spent the day riding various Valleyfair roller coasters and rides. They also had their meals covered by Shakopee Rotary, so everyone got to choose food from the array of restaurant and food options available.
“We are so excited to welcome them to Shakopee, show off our wonderful Valleyfair and be able to give them an experience,” McNeill said ahead of Saturday. “We are excited … knowing that we can provide food and provide an opportunity to be at the park.”
Last weekend’s trip also worked out well with YouLEAD’s program schedule. Participants spend five weeks in Minnesota, with each week following a specific theme: government, culture and society, business and entrepreneurship, community service and volunteering, and the education system and learning.
Visiting Valleyfair was a fitting way to wrap up the culture and society week, Fursman said. “This week of culture and society helps them understand a little bit about American culture. Roller coasters like this do not exist in Ukraine,” she said about Valleyfair’s attractions.
This year’s YouLEAD program almost did not take place due to complications caused by the war. Fursman said participants had to first travel to Poland to get travel visas issued to them, as they’d be unable to do so at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine.
Getting permission from parents was another concern. “Everything was very difficult,” Fursman said. “Most of them are under 16, which means they needed permission from their parents, but most of them have their fathers in the military right now on the front line.”
According to the program outline, some of the kids’ families have been displaced in Ukraine over the last year. Fursman said all the teens are currently volunteering and helping out in their respective communities, a large reason they were chosen for the program in addition to their leadership potential and service.
The teens arrived in Minnesota on Aug. 10 and have since spent time traveling around the state and visiting various attractions. The group has visited locations including the Minnesota Sculpture Garden, the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, the Mill City Museum and the Minneapolis mayor’s office.
During each week, the young leaders participate in leadership activities they can use back home. “All these young leaders have high hopes and confidence in winning the war and are ready to assume responsibilities, when the time comes, to lead their communities and organizations towards a free, connected and prosperous Ukraine,” Global Synergy Group states on its website.
While this year’s program has certainly faced some hardships, Fursman said she has seen so many local residents and organizations reach out and offer to get involved. Fursman, who moved to Minnesota from Ukraine in 2002, said it has been heartwarming to see groups wanting to make this five-week experience as memorable as possible for the guests from Ukraine.
“What we’ve discovered during this time is a greater response from our community,” she said. “I think we in the United States sometimes feel helpless in that we don’t know how to help. This provides an opportunity for us to come together as a community here and engage our youth.”