Growing Through Service

YLI Volunteers Are a Key Part of Youth Leadership Initiative’s Unique Model

Susan Phillips had already worked in youth development for 30 years when she discovered her passion for Wilder’s Youth Leadership Initiative. Phillips was so intrigued by the program’s unique way of helping youth learn skills, engage in community action and develop as leaders that she wrote her master’s thesis on YLI in 2010.
Then she signed up to volunteer, and she remains dedicated to the program. “There’s nothing like YLI anywhere,” Phillips says. “I keep coming back in part because it feeds my spirit.”

Learning to Step Back

The Youth Leadership Initiative is an intense, year-long multicultural leadership program for high school students in Saint Paul. Through leadership retreats, cultural exploration sessions and action teams, youth acquire self-awareness, gain understanding of different cultures, build effective working relationships, and engage in meaningful action in their communities.
One of the distinctive components of YLI is the working relationship between participants and adults. Rather than an adult-child dynamic, participants work as colleagues with a small staff and more than 20 volunteers. This dynamic can help youth develop positive, trusting relationships with adults and establish themselves as leaders. Volunteers, too, often find that they learn from working with youth in this model – though the work may be challenging.
“There’s a relationship in which you have to figure out when to step up and step back,” says Sally Brown, who helped design and launch YLI before she retired from a career at Wilder in 2008. Not long after that she became a longtime volunteer of YLI.
 Sally Brown, pictured above with Wilder President MayKao Hang, and Diane Malfeld won  2016 Sandy Kiernat Community Service Award for their work with YLI participants.
Developing these relationships takes dedication. Some volunteers work with staff and participants in meetings of the full group. Others gather with smaller groups of youth mentors who help develop programming. They attend retreats with students. Volunteers gather as a community on a monthly basis to discuss and be equipped with tools around youth development. Volunteers typically commit to an entire school year of the program.
“These volunteers are essential to the success of our program,” says YLI Director Nou Yang, one of four staff and three interns and fellows on staff. “We would not be able to do this work without them.”

Youth Bring Hope

Some volunteers – like Phillips and Brown – were already engaged in youth work. Others are community members, Wilder employees, or former YLI participants who want to stay involved.
Chria Vang started volunteering at YLI in 2014, when she was a second-year college student at the University of Minnesota. She had been in YLI for three years in high school, including two years as a youth mentor who helped lead the group. Vang, a Gates Millennium Scholar for high-achieving youth of color, is majoring major in youth leadership studies.
“YLI is where I go to apply what I’m learning in school,” she says.
Diane Malfeld is a retired lawyer who started volunteering at YLI in 2011 in what is now the Creating Success Initiative, which gives YLI participants practical preparation for the challenges of adulthood. She found that she liked the staff and the participants, and she enjoyed working in an atmosphere that encouraged people to connect with one another on a personal basis. “It made me stretch in a way that I had never stretched,” Malfeld says.
 Diane Malfeld, above, and Sally Brown received the 2016 Sandy
Kiernat Community Service Award for their work with YLI participants.
For many volunteers, the connections that develop and the satisfaction of seeing young people grow into leaders are what keep them coming back year after year. “The youth just bring me hope,” Brown says.
If you would like to volunteer with the Youth Leadership Initiative, email

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If you are interested in volunteering with YLI or elsewhere at Wilder, visit our volunteers page or email