By Laura Tichy [email protected]

The 30th annual Southwest Florida Model United Nations Conference (SWFLMUN) that took place on March 6 and 7 included
an unusual group of guest speakers: Ukrainian youth talking about their lives to local high school students via Zoom. Bonita Springs resident Kathleen Hessert hosted the session for youths enrolled in the KidsKonnectUkraine virtual pen pal program she
founded. (Florida Weekly is identifying the Ukrainian children by first name only for security reasons.) The conference took place at Florida Gulf Coast University and was sponsored by the Naples Council on World Affairs.

During the session, youth from both countries learned they were more alike than not, with Ukrainian kids saying that they enjoyed playing video games, cooking snacks and playing with their pets. They said they were doing their best to continue their schooling and to stay connected with friends and families despite the hardships they faced.

Savanna Varon, from Baron Collier High School in Naples, asked the Ukrainians, “How has the war affected your mental health, and is there anything that other countries could do to help?”

Ms. Hessert added that U.S. experts express concern about social media negatively impacting youth mental health.

“I personally think that social media is good for peoples that can’t go anywhere,” Ctac replied. “Especially when it is war, and all your friends is moved to another country, you can at least speak and play video games with them. My best friend moved to USA, and it really helps me because I don’t know what would I do without it.”

“In times like this, social media is a must-have for all kinds of people because, in different situations, you need to use it,” Arten added. “One day alarm sirens starts, and you can ask friends if they are OK, or connect with friends that are not in this country, so I think this is must-have for all people in Ukraine. It helps mental health. I don’t think it applies on children’s mental health.”

The opportunity to speak with the Ukrainians was only one educational opportunity the conference provided. Like typical model UNs, the 200 students from 15 regional high schools were issued countries to represent, which they researched — with the help of their schools’ coaches — as they prepared to serve as delegates. The research is critical because the students must speak realistically from the viewpoint of their assigned countries, not from their personal beliefs and values. However, this model UN differs from others in significant ways.

“A number of things make our competition unique, but one is that these are not make-believe, hypothetical or artificial subjects,” said Alan Van Egmond, the Naples Council on World Affairs board member who chairs the SWFLMUN as one of the council’s core activities. “These are real-world topics that are actively being debated in various UN forums as we speak.”

Another unique aspect of SWFLMUN is that adult judges observe the proceedings and provide the students with feedback at the end, rather than the event being judged by peers. Because of Southwest Florida’s appeal to retirees, these judges have professional experience from careers in law, diplomacy and international organizations such as the World Bank or non-governmental nonprofits.

“The coaches tell us that makes a difference, and the kids step up their game, knowing that the judges are experienced, worldly people with significant backgrounds,” said Mo Winograd, vice-chair of SWFLMUN. “The kids know there are heavy hitters around, but they don’t know until they’re introduced at the end who they actually got.”

The adult judges are critical because of another unusual aspect of the SWFLMUN competition: The council awards over $40,000 in scholarships and financial awards to the winning delegates and teams.

“Instead of just thinking about sports, this is something kids can do in school that can be quite impactful in their later life,” Ms. Winograd said. “And it’s nice for a kid to be able to say to mom and dad, ‘Look what I just brought home for college.’”

Noah Thorne, from Gulf Coast High School in Naples, drew the task of representing the Russian Federation in a committee focused upon addressing ongoing global food insecurity while considering how the crisis is exacerbated both by the war in Ukraine and climate change. Students from other schools represented other countries, to include a student who represented Ukraine’s viewpoint. The students had to diplomatically voice disagreements while still working together towards the committee’s assigned goal to draft a solution to the problem.

“When my school got the countries of Russia, Panama and Kuwait, we decided we’d give our most experienced delegates Russia to give the challenge to the ones who could handle it,” Mr. Thorne said. “At first, we weren’t happy about it, and we’re all going, ‘Why do we have to deal with Russia?’ But as we researched, we became more confident with it.”

He said his school’s model UN team had represented Russia at other conferences, so they had background experience. To prepare, they researched Russian policies and law. They also used the United Nations library to look up past resolutions Russia had sponsored.

“At model UNs, everyone thinks they’re going to solve all the world’s issues, but it’s less about solving the problems and more about staying true to policy,” Mr. Thorne said. “One of the biggest things we thought about was to focus on things that Russia has actually done, and we modeled our resolutions based on Russia’s. Solve world hunger with centralized funding? That’s nothing Russia would say. Undo trade barriers that are affecting Russia right now? I’m surprised (delegates on the committee) let me pass that one, personally. It was a very Russian thing, but no one questioned it. I think model UN is unique in terms of getting into the headspace of a country that is not yours and doesn’t align with your personal beliefs.”