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Teen volunteer is 'talk' of VA medical center

13-year-old Aidan Knaus is a fast-talking, fast-walking, VA medical center volunteer.
Aiden Knaus escorts patients around the St. Cloud VA Medical Center.

ST. CLOUD, Minn. — Editor's Note: This story originally aired in 2015

Picture an old-time jukebox - silent - just waiting. You put in a quarter and then hit play.

That's kind of like asking Aidan Knaus a question.

"We'll, I've-been-doing-this-for-more-than-a-month," blurts the 13-year-old from Sartell as he hustles down a hallway. "It's-just-awesome," he continues, gaining speed.

Aidan walks almost as fast as he talks. He's a boy with a purpose.

A veteran needs him.

Starting in June, the Sartell Middle School 8th grader has garnered some talk of his own, as a volunteer patient escort at the St. Cloud VA Medical Center.

"In all the years - and I've been here at the VA for ten years plus - I've never came across a student like you that's so interactive," Mary Klosowski tells Aidan.

The navy veteran and VA housekeeper has been noticing Aidan scurrying between assignments.

"Everybody, they want Aidan," she laughs, "but Aidan's never available because everybody wants him."

The minimum age for VA volunteer is 13. Aidan celebrated his 13th birthday the day before he started.

During his first summer with the VA, Aidan volunteered more than 160 hours, pushing veterans in their wheelchairs back and forth to therapy, the canteen and the chapel.

"I don't want to push 'em and just be quiet," he explains. "I just love to talk."

As Aidan pushes George Nistler, who served in Japan after WWII, veteran and teen talk about life on the farm where George grew up.

"Same thing with my grandma and grandpa," Aidan tells the vet. "That's what they did too. They had to work on a farm too."

Aidan has also learned some stories are just too painful to share.

Donald Zitur's voice cracks when Aidan asks him what he did during WWII. "I was a machine gunner," the veteran says, holding back his emotions. "You don't want to remember that stuff."

For Aidan, each encounter is a breakthrough.

"I didn't know that he could thrive in something like this," says Tanya Hundeby, Aidan's mother.

"School's been hard for him," she adds.

Earlier this year Aidan was diagnosed with memory lapses, ADHD and high functioning autism.

But problems were evident much earlier.

"I couldn't really talk when I was little," Aidan explains. "I couldn't talk till I was 3 years old."

Like any mother, Tanya worried. She began teaching Aidan sign language, unsure if her youngest child would ever talk.

Today, Aidan's chattiness is not only a surprise, but a victory. "Because he can talk," his mom says, "he loves meeting new people and having conversations, learning about people's lives."

Navy Veteran Jay LaCrosse made fast friends with Aidan during a 16-day rehab stay for a hip he broke falling in the shower.

"He's very special to me," says Jay, who wrote a letter to President Obama seeking recognition for the young volunteer.

The Vietnam era veteran remembers one day in particular. Aidan had slowed down his usual speedy pace while pushing Jay in his wheelchair. Jay asked Aidan if he'd been in a "fender bender."

"'No, no,'" Aidan assured Jay, then added, "I just realized that if I went slower that you and I would have more time to talk,"

Jay held his hand to his heart recounting the story. "And that was the first time, you know, It hit me so hard how special this kid was."

And as for the mom who once worried about Aidan, there's no concern anymore.

"He's perfect just the way he is," says Tanya. "Very proud of him."

We've all been told that talk is cheap. But for those who served their country, Aidan Knaus delivers.

NOTE: The St. Cloud VA Medical Center is seeking additional volunteers. Anyone interested in volunteering can call 320-255-6535. Information is also available by clicking here.

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