MOORHEAD, Minn. — Near the basketball courts in Woodlawn Park, a group of boys from Moorhead kick a soccer ball with new friends from St. Paul. Under the shelter, high school girls donned in traditional Micronesian skirts embroidered with bright-colored flowers giggle alongside girls wearing hijabs.
Other kids like 13-year-old Mykey Elias mingle with adults and community leaders.
“Do you want me to teach you how to say some words in Chuukese?” Elias asks Moorhead City Council member Shelly Carlson.
Carlson nods enthusiastically, and Elias begins to teach her a few phrases, like hello (“ran annim”) and goodbye (“kene nom”)
Chuukese is a language spoken primarily in the Chuuk islands of Micronesia. Elias and his peers visiting Moorhead live in Milan, Minnesota, a tiny town with a population under 400, where over half that is made up of Micronesian immigrants. There, the kids have started a "5 O'clock walk" program every Tuesday and Saturday to get the townspeople moving and socializing.
"That’s how we got involved with other communities and it all started just because we saw that our town was inactive," said Josephine Iounanis, 15, of Milan.
All together, the youth present in the park represent immigrant communities in three Minnesota cities: Moorhead, Milan and St. Paul. The children from Moorhead and St. Paul mainly come from Somali-American families.
They were brought together by a partnership between the New American Development Agency and the University of Minnesota Extension and sponsored by a grant from Well Connected Communities and from Nation 4-H in partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to help young people create solutions in their communities.
Kamaludiin Mohamed, founder and executive director of the nonprofit New American Development Agency said the biggest challenges for immigrant communities are language and cultural barriers. But, he thinks the youth are well positioned to solve these issues and influence their older counterparts.
“We are teaching them how to be good citizens,” he said. “How to take part in good activities. We help them also at an after-school program, and at the same time we teach them with leadership programs through 4-H club and also the university extension.”
Through the program, the Moorhead group has engaged in trips to national parks, soccer and basketball, and community service. And the kids always get to choose the activities.
Noelle Harden, the club leader for the Moorhead group and a University of Minnesota Extension coordinator said, “This whole project is about youth leadership and then determining what the issues are and what the solutions are that they want to pursue. So this group has been all about volunteerism and being more visible in the community and more connected to the community.