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A 'kite runner' says it's OK to have fun in Darfur

Patrick McGrann wants to help refugee children take back their skies, create jobs for the needy, and maybe even set a world record at the 'Darfur Kite Festival.'

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He's doing his Darfur project on a kitestring: about $10,000, his own frequent-flier miles for part of his plane ticket, corporate contributions of materials – like Tyvek house-wrapping material for kites from DuPont – and volunteers.

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Part Indiana Jones, part Che Guevara, part Mr. Rogers, part Kofi Annan, McGrann grew up in Minneapolis, his father a well-connected Democratic lawyer and lobbyist and his mother the owner of a cutting-edge women's clothing store. After attending Breck School, one of the region's high-end private schools, he trotted off to Trinity College in Connecticut and dived into economics. After graduation, 10 years ago, he zoomed to Australia, got a job in a bank, lived on the beach, dated the bank's personal trainer; life was good. But, as the Internet began to blossom, he became intrigued with the website of a rebel group in Papua New Guinea.

Without a care but with a bulging backpack, he met up with some rebels in Indonesian Western New Guinea, hiked through that mountainous nation and, eventually, had a confrontation with machete-and slingshot-carrying gangsters. "That was the catalyst for me to go back to graduate school," McGrann says. He got his master's degree in science and technology policy from the University of Minnesota, and from there – minus the machetes – his journeys continued.

He traveled to Bolivia on a MacArthur Foundation grant, helping rural towns with economic development plans. He received a fellowship with the Congressional Hunger Center and the UN International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), first with peasants in Peru and then at IFAD's Italian headquarters.

There, in Rome, a stunning event altered his career trajectory. Some IFAD colleagues refused to go to the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002 because there were no business-class seats left on flights to Johannesburg, South Africa.

"That was the straw that broke the camel's back," he says. "I'd grown up seeing Sally Struthers on late-night TV talking about hunger.... These people wouldn't [ride] coach to a conference. But I wanted to see hunger for myself."

He managed a trip on his own to Ethiopia in 2003. At first glance, he recalls, "I'd seen much worse in the highlands of Bolivia and Peru," until, while hitching a ride on a truck, McGrann watched a young man dying of AIDS deposited at a remote clinic, its doors locked, with no lights.

It was time to come home to Minnesota, work in his mother's shop, settle down, and meet a nice woman – which he did. As it turned out, his girlfriend's family owned a jewelry business that needed to be restructured. McGrann helped her navigate those financial waters, and the two decided to take their profits – about $100,000 – and invest in something good. He favored economic development in poor countries. She favored kiting, a love of her grandfather's.

Thus, Kitegang was born, with initial stops in Burma, Malawi, and Kenya, showing children how to fly kites and teaching others how to make them. Even as his romantic relationship fizzled, McGrann's work carried on. Through his connections with aid groups and the UN, the world record awaits him, barring unforeseen circumstances, that is. The recent arrests of French journalists and aid workers for trying to "adopt" children from Chad concerns McGrann. He suspects that controversy will trigger more scrutiny of unorthodox initiatives such as Kitegang.

"But I know the folks there really want to set the world record," McGrann says.

They want to take back their skies.