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Difference Maker

People making a difference: Gunnar Swanson

An Iraq war veteran has dedicated his life to helping children affected by conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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After several conversations with Dina Fesler, president of WKR's parent organization, Children's Culture Connection, and a visit to Northfield, Swanson took the position of program manager. The job meant living in Northfield, so Swanson left Florida and moved to a house on a farm outside town.

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Swanson's first order of business was planning and organizing "A Soldier's March for Peace," a 1,000-mile walk that started on July 4 in Dallas and recently ended on Sept. 11 near Northfield. Its purpose was not only to raise money and awareness, but to get children involved. Along the zigzag course, Swanson and Ms. Fesler (who followed in an RV) stopped and spoke to some 30 youth groups – YMCAs, summer camps, after-school centers – about the plight of children in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"He's kind of a tough guy on the outside, but he really is able to let his vulnerability shine through," Fesler says. "He's not afraid to be who he is."

"If I could use one word to describe Gunnar, I would have to say 'passionate,' " adds Chad Pedersen, who served with Swanson before and during the 957's deployment to Iraq. "He is passionate about helping those kids, and anything he gets excited about, he just pours his heart and soul into it."

With his bald Yul Brynner pate, warm personality, and 100-watt smile, Swanson is a big hit with children. In Cameron, Mo., 16 grade-school children at the YMCA respond enthusiastically as they learn the names of far-off cities like Baghdad, Kirkuk, and Sulaymaniyah. He tells them his first name has nothing to do with being in the military: He was named for his great-grandfather. (Gunnar is a Scandinavian name that means "brave soldier.") The children seem pleasantly surprised to discover that children in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite their severe hardships, also play soccer and computer games.

After a short talk, Swanson and Fesler pass out paper, pens, and art supplies, and the children write letters to their peers in the two war-torn countries. "A kid over in Iraq or Afghanistan who has received a letter from a kid in the United States will probably hold onto that letter for the rest of his life," Swanson tells them.

In all, 2,700 letters were collected and will be distributed sometime next year. "We really didn't want it to be just a walk," Fesler says later. "We wanted to turn the walk into something larger where we could really showcase why we are doing this and how we want children in America brought into this."

Money raised by WKR will go to building a rehabilitation and job-skills training center in Mosul, Iraq, and a vocational training center in Khost, Afghanistan. WKR partners with local groups in both countries.

Swanson's 1,000-mile walk and his encounters with children were also intended to inspire the children to undertake their own fundraising. Along the way, all manner of lemonade stands, bake sales, carwashes, and other efforts sprang up, contributing to WKR's project.

As more funds come in, Swanson hopes that construction can begin on the projects. "[The children] can feel like they're building the youth center in Iraq and the vocational center in Afghanistan," he says.r