Youth Frontiers Shares Lessons in Character Building

by | Dec 2023

Youth Frontiers engage a crowd of students during one of their retreats.

Youth Frontiers engage a crowd of students during one of their retreats. Photos: Youth Frontiers

Youth Frontiers teaches hundreds of students about self-improvement and empowerment.

For the last 35 years, an Edina nonprofit has aimed to be the beacon of hope that illuminates the path for young minds across Minnesota. With every endeavor, it guides students on a journey of self-discovery. Its goal is to give students an experience of a few hours that in turn can change a lifetime.

Youth Frontiers was founded by Joe Cavanaugh in 1987, grounded in the mission “to provide experiences that inspire character, civility and community.” Thirty five years ago, Youth Frontiers was focused solely on serving schools and had seven clients, one of which was the Edina School District. Since then, the organization has seen exponential growth, reaching over two million people through thousands of retreats. Last year, Youth Frontiers visited 380 schools across Minnesota, neighboring states and nationwide.

For students grades four through 12, retreats focus on values, such as kindness, courage, respect or wisdom. Over the course of one school day, a facilitator walks students through thoughtfully developed content. From start to finish, even students’ physical presence changes, from mingling with peers, to laughing and even crying together. “A lot of the work is getting back to the basics that we are all just people,” says Nicole Sullivan, president of Youth Frontiers. “We’ve lost sight that we’re all humans, and, collectively, we are working toward living this life together. They get to decide what kind of community they want to co-exist in. It’s watching a community in bloom.”

For high schoolers, Cavanaugh is a firm believer in giving them the opportunity to step up and change how the future looks. He says, “Young people have a responsibility to make the community better, act with character, respect, courage … heal the world. Young people, when they’re challenged, they rise to that. They’re hungry for purpose and meaning.”

Students applaud their achievements in introspection during a Youth Frontiers retreat.

Students applaud their achievements in introspection during a Youth Frontiers retreat.

Prior to COVID-19, it was typical for the Youth Frontiers team to host over 900 retreats (100,000 students) per year. When the pandemic hit, large group gatherings and in-person schooling was put on hold. There was a drastic need to pivot to support other audiences and in new capacities, which is when programming for adults was born.

“Each positive decision or action makes an ocean of individual drops in a bucket,” Cavanaugh says.

Sullivan says that, at the end of each retreat and depending on whether the kids are in elementary, middle or high school, kids are asked to choose one act of courage, kindness or respect. “It could be connecting with a friend instead of holing up and playing video games,” she says. “Or saying one less mean comment online. These intentional behaviors will change the community.”

Youth Frontiers
5215 Edina Industrial Blvd. Suite 400
Facebook: Youth Frontiers
Instagram: @youthfrontiers
X: @youthfrontiers


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