A hallmark of my work is conveying that almost everyone has an empathetic heart; it’s just that most of us are scared to death to allow our hearts to open because we fear getting caught up in the unexpected or the costly if we help another human, especially a stranger. However, when shown the way, we humans respond with empathy time and again.

A recent example of this happened with a fundraising effort to help buy a new bicycle for a 43-year-old Buffalo, Minnesota man named Paul Pykonnen. Paul, born in Liberia, was adopted by a Minnesota family as a baby; he was greatly malnourished before the adoption (he weighed only 8 lbs. at 6 months old), resulting in a disability that affects his reading and speaking skills. He’s worked as a cart coraller/utility worker at the local Mendards for at least 10 years. Paul doesn’t have a driver’s license and commutes three miles to work by bike year-round, including in Minnesota’s very unfriendly winter months.

By all accounts, Paul is very well-liked by Mendards team members and customers. “He’s one of the most powerful and amazing young men I’ve ever met,” said one customer. The store manager, Kevin Dahl, said of Paul: “He’s honest as the day is long and you can’t get him to frown. What you see is what you get.”

It was at Mendards that customer Todd Sandberg first met Paul, who was struck by Paul’s friendly demeanor and hard work. Last summer, Sandberg encountered Paul riding his bicycle with multiple bags of groceries hanging from the bike handlebars. Sandberg stopped and gave Paul a ride home with the bike in the trunk of Sandberg’s car. It was then that Sandberg noticed that Paul’s bike was falling apart. Sandberg then took Paul’s bike in for repairs but eventually concluded that Paul needed a brand-new bike.

At that point, Sandberg launched a GoFundMe drive to raise $1500 for a new bike. Within 72 hours, nearly 700 people had donated more than $24,000 toward the bike appeal. Quite incredible and proof again that we will show up for humans when someone shows the way. The money has been used to buy Paul a new street bike and a second, “fat tire” winter bike. The extra money will be used for repairs on the home that Paul shares with his wife; any remainder will be donated to charity.

There’s also another angle to this story. A Star Tribune piece references something that’s incredibly enlightening; a Menards team member said this about first meeting Paul: “I was scared to talk to him at first. I was concerned I wouldn’t understand him, so I was a little standoffish.” (Later in the piece, the same team member says of Paul, “He’s just uplifting to be around. Some people come in just to talk to Paul.”)

This is how fear of “Other” separates us. As Todd Sandberg showed, once we get past our fear and see a human for who h/she/they are, we form affinity, which then allows for empathy and compassion to grow. We just need to remember that good can flow once we get past fear. It really is possible!