Sharing Whitehorse’s culture with the world’s youth

When Jessica Pisarek's boss came to visit her at her cabin on the Alaska Highway south of Whitehorse, he was surprised to see her chopping wood. "I don't think he realized that I'm kind of outdoorsy.

When Jessica Pisarek’s boss came to visit her at her cabin on the Alaska Highway south of Whitehorse, he was surprised to see her chopping wood.

“I don’t think he realized that I’m kind of outdoorsy. I’m pretty short and blonde – I think he thought I wasn’t going to survive up here very well,” Pisarek laughed.

Soon she’ll share her northern experience with 18 Canada World Youth participants.

Nine of them are from communities across Canada and nine are from Ukraine.

“I’m really excited for the Canadians to come up to the Yukon because I think it’s such a beautiful, extraordinary place, so unique. I’m so excited to show the Ukrainians the Yukon too.”

The organization offers volunteer opportunities to youth in different cultures. The group spends three months in a Canadian town and three months overseas.

For the first time since 2003, the organization is coming to Whitehorse.

They always wanted to come to the territories, but with the flights being so expensive the nonprofit couldn’t afford it, said Pisarek.

“Now we’re back and we hope to be back for the next four years.”

Staying in small communities gives the participants an accurate portrayal of Canada, she said.

The group, aged 17-20, will volunteer with various organizations in Whitehorse before flying to Ostroh, Ukraine.

Pisarek, the project supervisor, came from Vancouver on her first contract with Canada World Youth. The group doesn’t arrive until September but she’s taking the summer to lay the groundwork.

The toughest part is finding host families. She’s looking for homes for paired participants to live in during their stay in Whitehorse.

A variety of families, such as retirees, single parents, same-sex couples or nuclear families, would add to the cultural experience, she said. The local hosts would also get a cultural experience, with one of their tenants being a Ukrainian.

Pisarek is also seeking organizations for volunteer placement. So far she’s been in touch with Angel’s Nest, Blood Ties Four Directions Centre, the Second Opinion Society, Volunteer Yukon, Centre de la Francophonie and the Yukon Conservation Society.

“There were quite a lot of different community organizations that were eager to have our support,” said Pisarek.

Whitehorse is a good city for the youth because it is such a “rich community” with diverse organizations.

“We’ve had quite a lot of requests for volunteers and quite a lot of interest.”

They will contribute over 4,000 volunteer hours to Whitehorse, but the group also deals with global issues.

“We do look at a lot of global issues while we’re up here and link them to local issues. Think globally, act locally, that’s kind of a huge part of Canada World Youth.”

The main theme of the program is environmental issues.

“That’s another reason Whitehorse was chosen because of how close it is to nature and the environment and it plays such an important role in Whitehorse and it’s just easy to see because we are so close to everything.”

When they go to Ukraine, part of their volunteer work is to create a sustainable plan with the Ostroh Academy National University.

The cross-cultural experience is one of the most important aspects of the program, said Pisarek.

“It’s not just the Canadians going to Ukraine; it’s not just the Ukrainians coming to Canada, but also the Canadians are seeing another part of Canada as well. I think that’s really interesting how the exchange works on so many levels.”

Since arriving in Yukon in June, Pisarek has already started to make note of the culture.

Like her hometown of Vancouver, Whitehorse has a laidback, West-Coast attitude, she observed.

People don’t dress up for work here, which may shock the Ukrainians.

“But in Ukraine they do (dress up), so they’re going to come to work in their stiletto heels,” she joked.

Shoe shock wasn’t the cultural difference Whitehorse-born Natalka Luciuk experienced when she participated in 2004.

Her group spent three months in Perry Sound, Ontario, and three months in Peru.

One of the differences she experienced was Peru’s slower pace. Like the Peruvians, Luciuk would go to work in the morning, go home to eat a stomach-stuffing meal then take a long nap.

Her best memory was spending time with locals after her nap.

“I think I had the funnest time just hanging out in the neighbourhood and everyone sort of comes out and socializes and you have kids on the street playing soccer,” she said. “And kids are the funnest too because they find it so entertaining that you can’t properly speak their language.”

Having grown up in Whitehorse and now living here again after graduating from Concordia University, the 25-year-old promises the city is perfectly suited for Canada World Youth.

“It definitely offers a different kind of Canada, a different part of Canada. I know that when I was a participant and trying to explain to the Peruvian participants that I’m from Canada, and when we were in Ontario, being like, ‘But I’m from a different Canada.’ That’s a very neat perspective for people coming.”

As Whitehorse will have a lot to offer to the participants, they’ll bring a lot to the community as well, Pisarek promised.

“They’re young. They’re coming here to get experience and they’ll be willing and eager to help out and learn and give back to the community.”

Contact Larissa Robyn Johnston at