WorldDenver connects Colorado to the world

New program will bring local and Middle Eastern and North African youth together through virtual exchange


In the past decade or so, Cheesman Park resident Laurie Hirschfeld Zeller has hosted members of Parliament from the United Kingdom, university presidents from Yemen, journalists from various African countries and women leaders from all over the world.

“These are the most interesting and rewarding interactions you can imagine,” Zeller said.

Sometimes these international guests stay in Zeller’s home for about a week and sometimes they come just for dinner.

“Breaking bread in one’s home is universally meaningful to all cultures,” Zeller said. “These opportunities have allowed me to show a personal side to the good experience these visitors have in Colorado, and helps them feel the goodwill that they take back to their home countries.”

Zeller is a founding member of WorldDenver and an Emeritus Board Member. The international visitors she has hosted are people chosen to participate in the International Visitors’ Leadership Program, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State.

“Denver has so much to share with the world,” said John Krieger, executive director of WorldDenver, “and we make those connections.”

WorldDenver is a membership-based nonprofit organization that connects Denver — and Colorado — to the world through international exchange, education, and personal interaction with international leaders, professionals and students, states its website.

“It matters that we feel connected to the greater world, here in land-locked Denver,” Zeller said. “WorldDenver is a community of members that supports the great programs and visiting delegations that help us understand the perspectives of our fellow humans — and helps those other humans understand us.”

WorldDenver is perhaps most known for facilitating the International Visitors’ Leadership Program, and for being Denver’s World Affairs Counsel. But, WorldDenver also has a Young Professional membership, and puts on a variety of other programming, such as an annual International Women’s Day event.

“The biggest issues we face are borderless. They’ve got to be solved with global cooperation,” Krieger said. “Members come to WorldDenver to get that global connection.”

WorldDenver put on some virtual programming during the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns, but also turned attention to incorporating more educational programs for youth — something that had been on a priority list for quite some time, Krieger said.

The organization started to put together a plan to connect U.S. students ages 14-17 with students of the same age in the Middle East and North Africa — Iraq and Morocco, specifically.

Called the World Affairs Challenge Virtual Exchange, the new program is being implemented by WorldDenver, and supported by the Stevens Initiative. The Stevens Initiative, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, “is an international effort to build global competence and career readiness skills for young people in the United States and the Middle East and North Africa by growing and enhancing the field of virtual exchange,” states a news release.

WorldDenver is one of 19 grantees to be named a 2021 Stevens Initiative grantee.

What the youth will do in the program is work in bi-national teams to identify a challenge in their community that is related to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. They will work together to create a solution, and the program will culminate with the students presenting their challenge and solution plan in video format. Winners of the competition will get to implement their plan.

The youth will develop relationships and lifelong friendships with their peers abroad, while also building empathy, developing leadership skills and learning about new topics.

“When young people can turn their ideas into real action, especially while working cross-culturally, it is immensely powerful and transformative,” Krieger said in a news release, “setting them on a path toward meaningful global citizenship and community involvement.”

Kelly Jones-Wagy is one of the local World Affairs Challenge Virtual Exchange facilitators/mentors.

“Students generally have incredible ideas,” Jones-Wagy said. “As a facilitator, my goal is just to help them to focus those ideas as they work with their counterparts through the virtual exchange.”

Jones-Wagy said she hopes the students learn from each other.

“Not just about their project, but also about all of the things that they have in common,” Jones-Wagy said. “The more time we all spend getting to know people, the more we will be able to respect and care for others.”


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