Arms locked like teenage BFFs, Maiia Zuieva and Linda Wicklund walk the hallways of Minneapolis’ Minnehaha Academy, where Maiia comes upon something she’s never seen in her native Ukraine. It’s Pajama Day and the students are wearing their comfy best.

“Why aren’t we in pajamas?” Maiia asks Linda, who howls in delight.

“We would create quite a stir,” Linda tells her friend.

Twenty years ago, Linda traveled to Zolotonosha, Ukraine, with the Shepherd’s Foundation, an all-volunteer nonprofit organization she founded with her husband, Paul, an orthopedic surgeon. Linda, a Minnehaha graduate and former teacher, walked into a sparse classroom at School #4 where Maiia was teaching and felt an instant connection. “I knew we’d be working together,” Linda says.

Since then, Linda has made about four trips a year to Maiia’s school, which has become Minnehaha’s sister school. The 20-year educational exchange has brought Maiia and her colleagues desperately needed resources, as well as enthusiastic volunteers, who share innovative teaching strategies during the academic year and assistance with a popular one-week English-language camp in the summer.

Teaching aside, Maiia and Linda cherish their friendship outside the classroom. They keep in touch via e-mail and share meals, with their husbands, when the Wicklunds are in Ukraine.

Maiia remembers first meeting Linda and being stunned at how much the American woman smiled. “When I looked at her eyes, I imagined it was an angel,” Maiia says. “We don’t smile almost at all. I found myself smiling and I looked much better.”

Maiia couldn’t stop smiling as she and three colleagues made their first trip to the United States this month. They went to Minnehaha Academy, a private Christian school, to thank school leaders for generous financial and educational support. The women also visited a farm to ride a tractor, shopped at the Mall of America, toured the American Swedish Institute and Russian Museum of Art, strolled through a Hmong marketplace and ate breakfast at Perkins.

Linda got a kick out of watching Maiia’s reactions to Minnesota’s iconic offerings, remembering her own early cross-cultural lessons. At a Ukrainian marketplace early on, Linda picked up two precious live ducklings, cooed at them and returned them saying, “Bye, bye, ducklings,” not realizing they weren’t pets but that night’s dinner for somebody. “You should have seen the eyes of the women in the marketplace,” Maiia says, and they both laugh.

But after 20 years, their cultural barriers are few and their bond never stronger. “When I met Maiia, she had optimism, she had hope for her country,” Linda says. “Not all the Ukrainian people had that hope. Even in 1994, she could see the possibilities. She saw a future. She really believed in the partnership idea.”

Maiia nods. “Our dream,” she says, “is to continue to work together.”