Cynthia McArthur surrounds herself with bicycles she can't ride.
McArthur, 58, used to work as a bicycle mechanic and once spent months pedaling across Europe - until chronic fatigue syndrome left her unable to work or bike more than a few blocks.
Now she spends her time repairing bicycles in the garage of her St. Paul home and coordinating a volunteer program that donates the bicycles to torture survivors. The "Bikes for Clients" program at the Center for Victims of Torture provides about 50 bicycles each year to adults and children.
"I suppose you could say, 'Oh, it's a way of taking lemons and turning it into lemonade,' or something silly like that," McArthur said. "It's not that goofy, but it is ironic because sometimes it was depressing that I couldn't do what I was helping other people do."
The McKnight Foundation announced Wednesday that McArthur and five other Minnesotans will receive Virginia McKnight Binger Awards in Human Service. The nonprofit provides the $10,000 awards to Minnesota residents "who have demonstrated an exceptional personal commitment to helping others in their communities but who have received little or no public recognition."
McArthur said that when a McKnight official called to tell her the news, she couldn't believe it.
"I almost fell off the chair that I was sitting in," she said. "It was totally out of the blue for me."
Other award recipients include Somali youth advocate Abdi Ali, homeless outreach volunteer Jerry Fleischaker, affordable housing landlord Dan Hunt, early education advocate Peg Johnson, and Korean War veteran and longtime volunteer Berlyn Staska.
McArthur began volunteering at the Center for Victims of Torture in 1996, after learning that the agency needed bicycle helmets for clients. Agency staff had been buying used bicycles at rummage sales, but they didn't know how to repair or maintain them.
For McArthur, it was a perfect fit. She grew up with a passion for bicycling and had worked repairing bicycles in the 1970s, when it "was totally uncool for a girl to be a bike mechanic," she said.
The volunteer work also allowed McArthur to fulfill a childhood promise.
"I had a lot of things happen to me when I was young that weren't good," she said. And I just remember saying, 'I'll never treat anybody like I've been treated.' So it's just been a conduit for me to exercise that value."
She started out repairing bicycles for a few clients each year, but as the agency expanded, the requests increased. In response, she turned her occasional repair work into the "Bikes for Clients" program.
Over the past 14 years, she has built bicycles for hundreds of people who fled political oppression and torture, most of whom arrived in Minnesota with little or no money.
She now receives donated bicycles at her home, repairs them in her garage, and then arranges to have them delivered to clients.
The set-up allows her to continue to run the program, despite suffering disabling symptoms from chronic fatigue syndrome. The disorder forced McArthur to retire from her job as an associate professor for the University of Minnesota Extension nine years ago.
"This kind of fits my niche," she said.
For each bicycle, McArthur receives a referral note from the Center for Victims of Torture with a client's height, weight, and gender.
She then gets to work customizing the bicycle to fit those needs.
"I have high standards for bicycles," she said, explaining that she once had to ask a volunteer to swap out a set of tires because they didn't match. "The bike has to be a really nice bike. It has to bring the kind of energy to the client that is about healing."
She also makes sure to get the "cool bikes" for children - purple bikes for the girls and black BMX bikes for the boys.
McArthur recalled a referral she received several years ago for bicycles for three young girls. One of the parents later told McArthur that the girls had spent most of their first three years in Minnesota inside the family's apartment.
"They just hadn't gone anywhere because they didn't feel safe," she said. "And I thought, 'Wow, to go from not even getting out to riding their bikes down the street?' It's kind of amazing."
McArthur said despite her passion for the work, it hasn't been easy to cope with her own physical limitations. Several years ago, she considered quitting.
"I was really frustrated and thinking, 'I don't know if I can do this. I think I'm too sick, and I don't know if this is that big a deal for the clients, and maybe I'm overblowing the importance of it all,'" she said.
McArthur had just finished repairing a bicycle for a man who had arrived in Minnesota penniless and without his family. He had been tortured because of his political beliefs and had spent 12 years in jail in his home country.
A few days after McArthur made the repairs, she received a thank you note from the man's social worker. She called the social worker to say that the woman didn't need to send a thank you letter every time she repaired a bicycle.
The social worker, surprised, said that McArthur had no idea how much the bicycle meant to her client. She had written down what her client had said, and she read the words back to her.
"So here's this man whose first language is not English, been in a jail for 12 years under a very, very severe dictator, and he says to her, 'When I ride a bike, I can ride north or south, east or west for as long as I want, and when I get tired I can lay in the grass and look at the sky.'"
She paused. "I just went, 'Wow, okay. Now I know why I do this,' because isn't that why all of us ride a bike? ... It's about the independence and the freedom and the control and the desire that you fulfill for yourself."
McArthur returned to her garage that day, grabbed a frame and a set of wheels, and built a new bicycle.