For Patrick McGrann, the sky isn't his limit. It's his field of play, his diplomatic space. It's where he performs hand-to-hand acts of kindness and low-budget economic development for street kids in Kenya, rural kids in Burma (Myanmar) and, coming soon, orphans in a Darfur refugee camp.
Amid the sand, winds, and despair of Sudan, Mr. McGrann is poised to launch a unique effort in hope of rehabilitating traumatized children. He's going to tell these young people of Darfur to ... go fly a kite.
Actually, thousands of kites – all at the same time.
"Everything they've known in the skies has been bad," says McGrann. "Their skies have been filled with Sudanese bombers. Kites seem to be one of these disarming things."
Working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and SOS Children's Villages, the Austria-based aid organization, McGrann was set to leave his hometown of Minneapolis Nov. 6 to help stage the "Darfur Kite Festival." There, at the Oure Cassoni refugee camp, in a land where kiting is not a traditional pastime, McGrann plans to instruct children in kite construction and, then, kite flying.
With Universal Children's Day on Nov. 20 as his target, he wants as many as 3,500 kids to raise colorful nylon kites in unison toward those skies to set the world kite-flying record. "With kites, everyone becomes an optimist,'' he says.
If you're keeping score at home, the world kite mark hovers around 1,100, set by Scouts Australia last summer. But McGrann is no Kumbaya-singing Boy Scout, and Kitegang, his fledgling nonprofit organization, is no troop of Pollyanna-ish do-gooders.
His Kitegang plan is to create jobs and business skills in impoverished pockets of the globe by establishing kitemaking enterprises and, then, distributing many of those kites to children in need. Kitegang, he claims, will be the world's largest not-for-profit toy company. Already, the year-old Kitegang has trained postadolescent gang members in Nairobi, Kenya, to assemble kites.
"Patrick is an enthusiastic, energetic, entrepreneurial guy," says Margaret Zeigler, deputy director of the Congressional Hunger Center in Washington, D.C. McGrann held a fellowship with the center six years ago. "He picks up on things that, I think, a lot of people miss. When there's a problem to be solved, he addresses issues in his own way and has fun doing it."
War. Hunger. Disease. Corruption. Environmental devastation. Those scourges of the developing world ... how can anyone have "fun" with those? How can you put a kite in a kid's hands and claim some sort of psychosocial victory when it's a meal or shelter she truly needs? Isn't Kitegang frivolous?
"Most people that pose that question – ... very honestly – don't have the experience that I have," McGrann counters in a recent interview here. "There are groups that are already there in Darfur, filling medical and food needs, doing so many great things. But, tell me, what happens when you hear, 'Darfur'? Let's see, I'll skip to the next article. You know it's going to be bad news.... Who wants to watch them getting a vaccination? Who wants to see another food line? That's a downer. Instead, see some kids having a good time in the worst, most miserable place on Earth, and, if we do set the [kiting] world record, well, that's surely a different spin on Darfur."
He pauses his rapid-fire self-defense, then adds, "This is what I can do. People who ask, 'Why kites?', well, they must have more money than I do. Why don't they do something?"
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.