Briquettes Into Bridges

Project Team

The sponsors: Jerry Johnson | Kostandinos Sideras | Jill Steeves | John StettlerGunnar Swanson | Sarah Tiano

The development team: Dina Fesler | Jonathan Powers | Elissa Bogos



Jerry Johnson

I am a 43-year old businessman from North Carolina. I have a wife, Leslie, and a daughter named Catherine.

I am the owner of SportsSource Orthopedics,  an Orthopedic implant distributor for Depuy Mitek, the Sports Medicine division of Johnson &Johnson. We specialize in implantable devices for sport related injuries such as Rotator Cuff and ACL ruptures. I my leisure time I enjoy golf, triathlons and travel.

My global involvement includes supporting the following charities:

  • Children Of Vietnam
  • Children’s Culture Connection
  • Jamaican Orphan Relief
  • Haitian Earthquake Relief
  • Bosnia Mission FUMC
  • Appalachian State University Sports Medicine Endowment
  • Young LIFE
  • Living Water
  • From Jesus with Love
  • Charlotte Homeless Shelter
  • NC Brain Injury Support

Statement on the project:

I am the son of a military father killed in Vietnam while evacuating orphans during the fall of South Vietnam in 1975. Since that time, my life’s mission has been to help those less fortunate than myself and gain a better understanding of global need. I have been very blessed to have a career that affords me the opportunity to travel and explore areas of the world that often times are overlooked by the prospering developed world.

Realizing that I am only one, the opportunity to work with organizations like Children’s Culture Connection have helped me understand the true need of those suffering world wide. Having the opportunity to work closely with kids in many countries, I have come to understand the true impact we can all make in the lives of others, if we work together.

Kostandinos Sideras

I am a 35-year old medical doctor and cancer specialist.

My parents are Pandelis and Irene and live in Greece. My father is an olive oil farmer and my mother an English teacher. My parents were immigrants in the United States when I was born. Through the opportunities they had in America they managed to move back to Greece where I grew up. Despite the fact that my family worked very hard,  we never experienced war or hardship.  The occasional diplomatic incident between Greece and Turkey would politically stir our lives every once and a while, but that never amounted to anything serious.

Many years later, while back in the U.S., I met my future wife, Sarwa. Her story was quite different. She was born in Baghdad, Iraq, from Kurdish parents. When she was only two, her father was imprisoned by Saddam Hussein for political reasons.  Sarwa, her mother and her aunt were kidnapped and dropped off in the desert. From there they had to walk to Iran where they eventually settled in a refugee camp. From there, Sarwa and her mother spent four years in Tehran until they found out that her father was alive. Against all odds, he had made his way to Holland where he asked for his family to be sent there. They were eventually reunited and have lived in Holland ever since. Sarwa grew up in Holland, studied and later became a medical doctor. We are both doctors who now live in the U.S. We plan to raise a family, but have no children yet.

Statement on the program:

Despite our very different stories, Sarwa and I share a common cultural connection because of our backgrounds. I could relate to her story and her life’s experiences where I have learned that there is always hope for a better future, and one should never give up. When the opportunity presented to me to help someone overcome a difficult situation in his life, it felt very natural to be involved.

Jill Steeves

I’m Jill Steeves, a 55-year old mother of two terrific kids, Anne and David. Anne is a senior at St. Olaf College in Northfield MN. David is 19 and living in a group home for disabled children in White Bear Township, MN. I worked as a litigation legal assistant at Briggs and Morgan for 15 years. When my son David was born very prematurely, I chose to stay at home to care for my kids.

I’m a member and Deacon of First Presbyterian Church in Stillwater, MN. I’m also a volunteer and Board member of River Valley Riders, a therapeutic riding and diving program. With a disabled son who loves to ride horses and a daughter who excelled in Hunter/Jumper, it seemed like a natural way for our family to get involved in helping people with disabilities to be involved with horses. My passion is books and reading. I have always felt that the key to longevity is to be active. I do that by walking every morning, downhill skiing and annual hiking trips.

Statement on the project:

I have learned a lot from my kids. My son, David, taught me to see abilities, not disabilities. Through a college internship experience my daughter had last summer with Children’s Culture Connection’s War Kids Relief program, I learned about the hardship of kids in war torn areas. They are as similar as they are different culturally from my kids, and they deserve a chance to thrive in life. I would like to see the families living in the displacement camp in Kabul, Afghanistan to be able to earn a living and provide for their families.

John Stettler

I am a 53-year old owner of a plastic molding factory. I mold scrap plastics in a way similar to the way our new entrepreneurs will mold waste materials into briquettes. My wife, Helen, is a community liaison at our local elementary school. We both are strong believers in the importance of working within our community to make it a safe and enjoyable place to live.

My son, Michael, is a 20 year old who is in Germany building his German language skills. He will return to university next semester.

Just as I am a manufacturer who values the use of things that others think of as useless junk, I try to educate my employees on the value of things others consider waste, and to take care of things that can be used to provide a living for oneself.

Statement on the project:

Few people have actually read the book The Ugly American. I have often considered Homer Atkins, the fictional “ugly American” described in the book, as the type of person I most admire. This project will give me the opportunity to follow the example of Homer Atkins and work with someone in a distant country to build a cottage industry that can help him and his fellow countrymen.

Gunnar Swanson

My name is Gunnar Swanson and I am 32 years old. I was named after my great, great-grandfather on my mother’s side. I served in Iraq in 2003-2004 with the 957th MOBC out of the North Dakota Army National Guard. I carried out many missions while serving in Iraq, but mainly I was a boat operator and completed many riverboat patrols along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. I also carried out many convoy missions throughout Iraq, which provided me the opportunity to interact with many of the children who were suffering with the hardships of war.

I have a degree in psychology from Valley City State University in North Dakota, and have been a personal fitness trainer and a dolphin trainer for a few years in the Florida Keys before moving back up north to help Children’s Culture Connection’s War Kids Relief program. Today, I’m currently a nursing student at Medcenter One College of Nursing in Bismarck, ND. I plan on using the skills I learn through my nursing education to provide a more hands-on approach to helping children all over the world, particularly in nations tormented by war.

Statement on the project:

Tormented by the thoughts of the children I saw suffering in Iraq for several years, I decided to become part of War Kids Relief in an attempt to help the children suffering from war. We raised funds for projects such as this one through an effort entitled “A Soldier’s March for Peace,” where I walked 1,000 miles across the U.S. to raise awareness of children’s hardships during war and to help support War Kids Relief’s efforts.

Sarah Tiano

I am a 17-year old junior at Shattuck-St. Mary’s high school in Minnesota. I play varsity soccer and will be playing lacrosse for the first time this spring. I also am a member of Wooden Soldiers, the precision drill team, and the math team. I am involved with theatre, Art Club, Gold Key Club, Yearbook, the Student Leadership Committee and Spiritual Life Committee. This year I co-founded a new student led group called SIAC (Shattuck Individuals Advocating Change), which promotes acceptance and diversity in our school. I am part of the academic honors program, sing in a select choir and also play in the orchestra.

When I am not at school, I enjoy spending time at the local nursing home with my dog, Lucy, visiting residents as a form of occupational therapy.  I also enjoy volunteering at the Humane Society and Historical Society as often as I can. I also love cooking and baking, knitting, sewing and arts and crafts, spending time with my family, practicing my Spanish speaking, playing cello, flute and singing. I take Korean lessons on Saturdays and my goal is to be fluent by the time I graduate high school. On weekends and during the summer I lifeguard at the local pool and teach swimming lessons.

Statement on the project:

I started a project called “Peace By Piece” where I am making and selling 500 bracelets to raise money to sponsor one of the Afghan trainees in this program. I was inspired to do this after Children’s Culture Connection’s War Kids Relief program brought to light an issue that I had ignored; the children of war. I have always felt strongly that war is not the answer, and in doing so I had ignorantly turned my back on everything related to the war. It is out duty to aid others in need, especially children of war torn nations, as they have no choice whether or not the war is where they live. I have been working with youth and people my age to get the project going and to spread the word.

Development Team:

Dina Fesler

I’m Dina Fesler, the founder and executive director of Children’s Culture Connection (War Kids Relief’s parent organization). After more than two decades of working in the fashion industry—from New York, Shanghai and Hong Kong to running my own business—at 40- years old I adopted a daughter from China and another daughter from India. It was at that point that I realized that my life’s purpose involved much more than fabric, zippers and fashion week.

Because of my international family, I discovered that teaching other children in the community more about my daughters’ backgrounds helped them develop an appreciation for other cultures, a respect for people’s differences, and a desire to help children less fortunate than themselves. My passion for helping children of the world learn from and relate to one another is what led to the creation of CCC, and is what I believe is needed to foster real peace in the world.

Statement on the project:

My work with CCC has led me to nearly a dozen countries to work with at-risk children served though our programs. While I love all these children equally, the kids that I met in Iraq and Afghanistan have a very special place in my heart because I often feel that they get lost in the shuffle of the politics of war.

During my trip to Afghanistan last December, I met many of the children living in the Charahee Qambar IDP camp. They lack adequate food, clothing, shelter, healthcare and education. They live in conditions unfit for human existence, and play amidst open sewage, garbage and roaming wild dogs. Worst of all, they are unable to turn to their parents for security and comfort. When I saw a tiny baby lying on the ground, his father told me that the baby was dying and that he had no means to save him. With tears in his eyes he asked me if I would take him as a last possible hope of saving him, while the baby’s mother sobbed inconsolably from inside their mud home.

That was a life-changing moment for me, and a situation that I couldn’t turn away from.

The bond that linked me with that baby’s parents transcended nationality, race, religion and socio-economics. We all love our children and want to raise them to be strong, healthy and successful adults. Unfortunately, displacement due to war puts people in a vulnerable position where none of their options are good. The fact is our children are the future of the world; their children, as well as my children. By helping these families get back on their feet economically, we are working to ensure a safer future for all our kids.

Jonathan Powers

I am Jon Powers, the Chief Operating Officer of the Truman National Security Project, a national security leadership institute that recruits, trains, and positions a new generation of progressives across America to lead on national security. I served for four years as an Officer in the U.S. Army, including a 15-month tour in Iraq as part of Operation Iraq Freedom I.

In 2005, I founded War Kids Relief after returning to Iraq as a civilian to develop programs to engage Iraq’s youth and minimize recruitment by radicalized elements.  The youth and counterterrorism research and program development efforts led to War Kids Relief becoming a leading advocacy organization working to create a bridge between American and Iraqi youth to build a foundation for peace.  In 2008, I was a Democratic candidate for New York’s 26th Congressional District.

Elissa Bogos

I am a freelance photojournalist and videographer, originally from eastern Pennsylvania. I have been traveling to Afghanistan for the past three years and have been based in Kabul since August, 2009. Prior to that, I worked in the Middle East, Japan and, most recently, Russia, where I was the editor in chief of the English language weekly The Sakhalin Times. I speak Dari, one of the official languages of Afghanistan, and am trying to learn Pashto.
Statement on the project:

I first visited the Charahee Qambar settlement in 2008 while writing a story about it for an Afghan newspaper, and have watched its population grow significantly since then. Like Dina, I had a similar experience one day visiting the camp when I came across a dying infant whose parents had no means to afford medicine for him. This moment had a strong impact on me, as the baby and his family are part of the unseen victims of war in the country.

This project is based on hope. Hope that even those in the most seemingly dire situations in a country which has suffered tremendously for the past three decades, can look towards a better future.