It was in 19th century Victorian America that Susan B. Anthony famously proclaimed, “I think bicycling has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.” A woman on a bicycle, she said, is “the picture of free and untrammeled womanhood.”
More than a hundred years later, Suzanne Gilbert knows the value of a good bike, and she wants to share.
“The bike is my freedom,” said Gilbert, a graphic designer and the founder of four businesses, including her Fulton neighborhood-based landscaping company My Garden Goddess. “That happened when I was a child. I think everyone feels the freedom of getting away on your bike when you’re a kid, but for me it was escaping my dad, who was a dictator. I had too much of his personality, so we fought a lot, so once I got on my bike I was away from him.
“Growing up in Oshkosh, [Wisconsin,] I biked by Lake Winnebago and to and from my job because I didn’t have money for a car. I worked at a bakery in the morning and a restaurant at night. But it wasn’t until I literally stepped away from my dad as a grown adult in Minnesota that I learned he was giving me his best gifts. Which was: ‘So you’re passionate. Go ahead and use that. If you want it, you’ve got to go and make it happen.’
“Because my first major rift with him was that I was the first person in my family to want to go to college. My dad said, ‘Well, how are you going to do that?’ I just assumed he’d help me financially, and I asked and he said, ‘No,’ and I didn’t really care for that. It was a huge rift, so I had to go out and get a scholarship, and I did, and I gained a lot of confidence, and my design work got multiple prizes, and it’s been that way ever since.
“But the bike piece is such a freedom for me. I drop everything as soon as I get on that bike and feel the wind through the helmet, and I totally love giving that to a kid. Because it’s not only their freedom; it’s the beginning of staying healthy and going places and moving and I totally dig everything about it. It started with an interesting way with my dad, and now it’s come full circle.”
Gilbert graduated with a degree in graphic design, and when her father died of lymphoma, she took on a new mission as a fundraiser for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of Minnesota. Twenty years later, she’s raised over $100,000 for the organization and continues to be inspired to do more. Namely, for Free Bikes 4 Kids, the 10-year-old charity that collects and gives away thousands of bikes each year.
“Oct. 5 is my 61st birthday,” said Gilbert, a devout Christian who attends City Church in the Kenny neighborhood. “At 3 o’clock in the morning about three months ago when I was exhausted, sleeping three hours a day for my job with My Garden Goddess, I get the message from god above — he always hits you when you’re most vulnerable because that’s when he can make his point — and he showed me a postcard that was in a stuffed bag from a bike ride that I’d done that Saturday, which was benefitting Free Bikes 4 Kids.
“The postcard said Oct. 5 was the big rally day when all the bikes come in from across Minnesota. I’m like, ‘Oh, my birthday! You want me to collect 61 bikes?’ And I’m only sleeping three hours a day, because my business quadrupled this year, which is really wonderful, but I said, ‘OK, I can do that.’ Not knowing how they’re going to come in or where I was going to store them. I always leave the details up to him and everything falls into place.”
Gilbert got the word out via friends, business acquaintances and social media. She’s got the trailer to pick up bikes, a storage backyard in Richfield, a team put together and she encourages everyone reading this to donate to Free Bikes 4 Kids or to email her at [email protected].
“I am the example for everyone else,” she said. “You have to get your hands dirty. You are seen by everyone else, and people are watching. So go forth and be the example of what can be done. I’ve been called to do every single thing I’ve done. I don’t really feel like I’m chosen; if I’m introduced to an opportunity, I’ll pray about it and then I’m shown what to do. And no matter how busy I think I am, I don’t hesitate to move forward.
“I don’t think I could do it all unless I was an endurance athlete. I’m a triathlete; so one of my businesses was coaching iron men. So my whole life is a marathon, but there’s so much to do and so much ground to move, and I’m a make-it-happen kind of gal. Whatever you need, whatever the request is, I will make it happen. Because I’m exceedingly passionate; I think I was just born with all that passion.”
Her passion is infectious and, as a result, kids all across Minnesota will get a gift from Gilbert’s birthday.
“It’s going to be just a perfect day on my birthday,” she said. “I’ve got the trailer, I’ve got the team. It’s the first step in bringing the joy that I have when I ride — to share the bike love. We’ll be collecting more bikes including on the day of Oct. 5, and then they get wrapped and gifted at Christmas. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at [email protected].