Vikings COO Kevin Warren took a group of students from the Roseville Area School District 623 on a special tour of the team facilities Tuesday.
The Vikings hosted a group of students from Roseville Area School District 623 on a special tour of the team's facilities Tuesday to reward them for their commitment to bridging gaps between cultures and mentoring younger students.
The diverse group of more than two dozen juniors and seniors at Roseville Area High School included many students of Karen heritage (refugees originally from Burma who live on the border with Thailand). The students visited the U.S. Bank Stadium Preview Center in downtown Minneapolis before heading to Winter Park in Eden Prairie.
The young men are part of a group called Multicultural Leaders that was formed at the school five years ago by Kelly Tennison, who has taught English-learning students in grades nine through 12 at the school for eight years.
Tennison ideated the group as a way to reduce fighting that was problematic and sourced to a disrespect for cultural differences after multiple Karen students communicated to her that they had been bullied or been the recipients of racist comments.
By spending time together, the students gained a level of understanding and respect for each other, and the amount of fighting decreased.
"They found that they had so much more in common than not in common," Tennison said. "It's made a difference on a number of levels. First, I think some of these kids didn't feel connected to school before they joined this group, and it gives them a connection to school. Second, it gives them a connection to each other.
"You would never see an African-American student and a Karen student interacting in the hallway before and now you do because they're a part of this group together and have gotten to know each other," said Tennison, adding that "it was kind of magical" to see the transformation.
"I know that sounds a little bit dramatic, but initially it was hard," Tennison said. "They didn't know what to say to each other, and some of the kids are EL [English learner] kids, so language is a barrier and communicating with kids from outside their own group, they didn't know how to do it, so there was that challenge. It took time, and we tried to use different ways to connect them that don't use language. We used art initially a lot to get them to connect."
Once the connections started to occur among the high schoolers, they became mentors for younger students at five other schools in the district. Groups of Multicultural Leaders visit each of the schools three to four times a year.
The tours were hosted by Vikings Chief Operating Officer Kevin Warren. Vice President of Operations and Facilities Chad Lundeen and Director of Security Kim Klawiter guided the group around Winter Park, including stops in the Vikings draft room, the Fieldhouse, receivers meeting room and a pizza lunch overlooking the practice fields.
Vikings Director of Sports Medicine/Head Certified Athletic Trainer Eric Sugarman and Youth Football Manager E.J. Henderson also spoke to the students. Everson Griffen and Trae Waynes, who were walking to the locker room when they saw the group, stopped for impromptu chats.
Griffen spoke about how taking small steps add up to help people reach their goals, and Henderson emphasized the importance of education, hard work and respect.
Warren learned about the group through executive assistant Denise May, whose daughter, Nicki May, teaches EL at the school. He said he enjoyed learning about the program that has brought people from different backgrounds together and cast a focus on improving relationships in future generations.
"That's what we really need in the world, in the business community, legal community, corporate community and the political community, we need to focus on what similarities we have and not what differences we have," Warren said. "So to see this group of young people come together at the encouragement of their teachers and really do something about it and give back to the next generation is really special."
Warren said he hoped the young people learned about the varieties of careers that exist in the sports industry and that the students will be inspired to work toward their goals. He said he appreciated the opportunity to host the group and support from the Wilf family to host groups at the team's facilities.
"I think it goes back to what our Vikings franchise stands for," Warren said. "This is a very special place. There's an incredible amount of history here, and really you just have to give so much credit, gratitude and thanks to the Wilf family for creating this environment where they have empowered us to empower others.
"It comes all the way from Mark, Zygi, Lenny and Jon Wilf, that they've created this environment to say the more that you can give, the better we're going to be as individuals and as an organization, so it was a very special day," Warren added.
Tennison said the visit was a "treat for [the students] and all the hard work they've done." She thinks the messages from Vikings staff members will inspire the young people to keep working hard toward their goals.