Paul Pyykkonen isn’t just the guy who corrals carts in the parking lot of the Buffalo Menards store or helps customers carry packages. He’s the guy a lot of people have come to know and that few can forget.
So when a customer noticed that the old bike the 43-year-old Pyykkonen relies on to get to his job was falling apart, an online call went out to raise money to buy him a new one.
Within 72 hours, nearly 700 people donated more than $24,000, quickly busting an original $1,500 GoFundMe goal set by Todd Sandberg, who put up the post earlier this week.
That post, along with one on his Facebook page, has been shared more than 3,000 times and liked by 1,000 people.
“It’s overwhelming,” Sandberg said Thursday.
But it’s the kind of problem that has Pyykkonen figuring out ways to use the extra cash to benefit others with disabilities like himself.
Sandberg, a business analyst and self-described computer nerd, figured his “Pedals for Paul” post might raise $500 in a month’s time. He never expected to raise so much, so fast. In some ways, it’s not hard to explain. “You just have to meet Paul,” he said.
Pyykkonen is an easygoing, hardworking guy with an ever-present smile who tirelessly gives the only thing he has to give — himself. And customers and co-workers are instantly drawn to him and the joy he exudes.
“The community loves Paul so much for the guy he is and how he lives his life,” said Sandberg, who met Pyykkonen during one of his many runs to the store after moving to Buffalo, west of the Twin Cities in Wright County.
“It could be 100 degrees or 10 below and a driving blizzard and he’s out there pushing carts with a smile,” Sandberg said. “You’ll never meet anyone like him.”
Pyykkonen was born a twin in Liberia and was chosen as the one who was supposed to die. Deprived of food, he weighed only 8 pounds at 6 months old when missionaries rescued him. He was adopted by a Minnesota family. As a result of that early deprivation, he suffered brain damage, so he can’t read well and he slurs words when he speaks.
“I was scared to talk to him at first,” said Simone London, who started as a store cashier two years ago. “I was concerned I wouldn’t understand him, so I was a little standoffish.”
But Pyykkonen doesn’t let his disability get in the way of connecting with people, and those who know him see right past it.
“He’s just uplifting to be around,” London said. “Some people come in just to talk to Paul.”
Pyykkonen explains it this way: “I’m a people person.” He laughs and jokes and is quick to greet passersby.
“I just show my pearly whites,” he said, smiling as he explained how he endears himself to strangers.
Store general manager Kevin Dahl said that in his 41-year tenure, he hasn’t worked with anyone more dedicated than Pyykkonen. “He’s honest as the day is long, and you can’t get him to frown. What you see is what you get.”
“He’s one of the most powerful and amazing young men I’ve ever met,” said Ted Salonek of Montrose, who became fast friends with Pyykkonen after a chance encounter in a Menards parking lot 10 years ago.
“We kick the dirt because someone has taken our parking spot, and here’s this guy who has every right to be frustrated, and yet he lightens your day,” he said.
An outpouring of support
Now Pedals for Paul has allowed a community of strangers to give back beyond what Sandberg ever intended.
“I just wanted to give Paul a good, decent bike,” he said. “Not a Tour de France, $15,000 bike, but a good solid one. He can’t drive because of his disability.”
Sandberg fixed up Pyykkonen’s old bike the best he could last summer. He had stopped to give Pyykkonen a lift after seeing him riding his 3-mile route home with grocery bags hanging off his handlebars on a hot day.
“When I was loading the bike, I noticed his brakes weren’t working very well, the tires were half deflated and a frayed cable would scrape his ankles,” Sandberg said.
The repairs helped, he said, but now the bike is once again falling apart.
“I figured I would do something about it,” Sandberg said. He talked with Erik’s bike shop in Maple Grove and figured he would try to outfit Pyykkonen with a new bike, helmet, lights and saddlebags.
“I want him to be safe. I want the bike to be reliable. He rides it in the winter and summer so it also has to be durable,” Sandberg said.
He hit his initial $1,500 goal in two hours and has had to raise it at least five times to accommodate those clamoring to give. He has let people know some of the extra money will be used to repair the Buffalo home Pyykkonen shares with his wife, Leah. And after that, Pyykkonen will help decide which charities will benefit from the remaining balance.
Besides money, about a dozen contractors who frequent Menards have offered to donate their services. For many, their daily encounters with the guy in the Menards blue vest is a daily respite.
“I’m very honored” by the outpouring of support and the gift of a new bike, Pyykkonen said.
And now the generosity will be paid forward. Sandberg said he will shut down the bike GoFundMe page this weekend and people who still want to give will be directed to donate to a camp that benefits those with disabilities. Pyykkonen serves there as a counselor in the summer.
After meeting Pyykkonen for the first time Thursday, Jeff Abbott, a Menards spokesman, shook his head admiringly.
“This restores your faith that good things can and do happen to good people,” he said.