Zeeland greenhouse, Ukrainian refugee honored for workforce development

For Kira Malinina, her journey to West Michigan after fleeing the war in Ukraine is a story of resilience and new beginnings. She left behind her life as a horticulture teacher and her cherished garden.

Fortunately, the Ukrainian refugee was able to continue her passion by joining the staff at Walters Gardens in Zeeland, where she has excelled.

“I like working at Walters Gardens for two reasons – I love plants, this is my hobby, and I am surrounded by wonderful people,” Malinina says. “Before coming to the USA, we lived modestly and not richly, but we were not homeless. I lived in Ukraine for 60 years, so here I feel like I’m on another planet.”

Malinina and Walters Gardens Inc. in Zeeland are the recipients of the 2024 Michigan Works! Impact Award for their contributions to workforce development in Michigan. They will be honored at the Michigan Works! Association statewide Impact Awards in Lansing on April 17.

Adapting to new environment

West Michigan Works! had an integral role in Malinina’s integration into her new life in Michigan.

Under the guidance of West Michigan Works! career coach Julie Sooy at the Allendale service center, Malinina enrolled in English as a Second Language courses through Zeeland Adult Education and completed driver’s training, two essential steps in adapting to a new cultural and linguistic environment.
Walters Gardens Inc. and staff member Kira Malinina are the recipients of the 2024 Michigan Works! Impact Award for their contributions to workforce development in Michigan. (Courtesy)

“Kira’s transition from a Ukrainian horticultural teacher to a valued employee at Walters Gardens showcases the transformative power of determination, opportunity, and career development support,” Sooy says. “This is an outstanding example of the demand-driven model in action. I spent time learning about her background – she had experience in laboratory work, agriculture, horticulture, teaching, and as a florist – all the while considering potential businesses that may benefit from her expertise.”

Malinina’s horticultural knowledge led West Michigan Works! to connect her with Walters Gardens, a leader in employing refugees through its work experience program. Her experience, combined with her strong work ethic, quickly resulted in a permanent position at Walters Gardens. She has since advanced to the company’s trial gardens division, applying her knowledge of unusual plants and working with new and hybrid varieties.

“Her background knowledge was a huge advantage,” says Dianne Cote, human resources manager for Walters Gardens. “She is hardworking and kind, with a ready smile. As her English continues to improve, I see her continuing to grow within our organization. We are very happy to have her.” 

Developing agricultural talent

Walters Gardens, founded in 1946 in Zeeland, is North America’s leading wholesale grower of perennials, nurturing over 20 million plants annually across its 1,500-acre footprint, including 500,000 square feet of greenhouses.

Walters Gardens’ active role in West Michigan Works! Agribusiness Talent Council’s initiatives, like Ag-Jobs-4-All job fairs, have been instrumental in developing an agribusiness talent pipeline in West Michigan.

“Reaching refugees, like Kira, who are not currently working is vital to solving the labor shortage problem,” says Karrie Brown, business solutions manager, West Michigan Works!. “By actively recruiting these untapped talent populations, Walters Gardens provides an excellent model for how employers can think beyond traditional hiring practices to meet their talent needs.” 

West Michigan Works! provides employment and training programs and services
for employers, employees, and job seekers in Allegan, Barry, Ionia, Kent, Montcalm,
Muskegon and Ottawa Counties. 
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Read more articles by Shandra Martinez.