Story and photo by MARGIE O’LOUGHLIN
According to executive director Curt Goering, the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT) is one of Minnesota’s best-kept secrets—and he and his staff are working hard to change that. With their international headquarters at 2356 University Ave. W. and offices in Atlanta, GA, Jordan, Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda, CVT staff are helping restore dignity to those who have suffered torture around the world.
Photo left: Curt Goering (left), executive director, and Beth Wickum (right), volunteer coordinator. Wickum said, “The staff and volunteers here at CVT make me believe every day that positive change is possible.”
CVT was founded 31 years ago by former Minnesota Governor Rudy Perpich. Perpich’s son was a law student at the time, and came home one day to ask his father, ”What are you doing in your role as governor to support the work of human rights?” Out of that conversation between father and son, CVT had its beginnings.
The human rights movement was coming into its own in the mid-1980’s. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were becoming well established. As human rights advocacy continued to gain momentum, the need for rehabilitation of torture victims in all corners of the world was becoming clear.
CVT was the first, and is still is the largest, organization in the US dealing with the rehabilitation of torture victims. From the beginning, CVT established itself as a place where clients could receive the very best quality of care. Goering said, “Between them, our staff has hundreds of years of experience collectively.”
Separate from their administrative offices, CVT has a healing center in the nearby Summit-University neighborhood. The building was specially designed with its clientele in mind. The therapy and meeting rooms aren’t square like interrogation rooms might be, and there are no bright lights overhead. The spaces feel warm and inviting, more like a home than an office.
“At any given time,” Goering explained, “we serve about 250 clients who may be suffering from chronic pain, PTSD, major depression, and anxiety disorders. We estimate that there are between 30,000-40,000 torture survivors living in Minnesota. Not all of them require our therapeutic services but for those who do, we’re here to help.”
Volunteer coordinator Beth Wickum added, “Since the beginning, we’ve had a steady of stream of volunteers eager to support human rights immigrants in any way they could. Most of our clients are backlogged in the process of applying for political asylum. While that can be very overwhelming, we’ve learned that the small details of life can also be surprisingly hard.”
“I had a client call me from a grocery store not long ago,” Wickum said. ”She had gone on a simple errand to buy a bottle of stain remover. There were 16 different kinds on the shelf, and she couldn’t figure out which one to buy. We have a dizzying array of choices to sift through in this country, so even a small decision can sometimes seem big. Every volunteer role with CVT is about building empowerment; we try to help our clients access their own resiliency.”
“Toward that end,” Wickum continued, “we may pair a volunteer with a client to help them learn to navigate public transportation. They’ll go out and practice riding the bus or train together, so the client understands what change to bring and how to use schedules and transfers. Our volunteers work on cultivating trusting relationships. The time spent with clients is a way to practice English conversation, to learn about amenities in the Twin Cities like the Como Conservatory, the library system, the parks and trails, the art museums.”
“Some of our volunteer roles include direct client contact and some, like working in the office or helping to organize a special event, do not. If you want to have a volunteer role that involves direct contact, be aware that the person you’re working with may or may not choose to share details about their past. So much depends on culture and individual personality. You don’t have to worry about acting as their therapist—we already have plenty of those.”
Information about volunteering with CVT can be found online at http://www.cvt.org/what-you-can-do/volunteer.
Cynthia McArthur has been a volunteer with CVT for 19 years. “Our volunteers are a vital part of the rehabilitation process,” she said. “It’s one of the ways we welcome people not just into services, but into the life of the community here.”
McArthur heads up CVT’s bike program. Formerly a trained car mechanic, she brings a wealth of knowledge to the scores of used bikes CVT receives each year. Got a used bike, helmet, pump or light to donate? Contact Sarah Henely, CVT’s direct response officer, at email@example.com.
Instead of buying new bikes or equipment, please consider a cash or credit card donation to CVT. Local bike shops, Grand Performance and Boehm’s Cycle, have generously agreed to sell these items to CVT at cost.
Goering concluded, “The largest national populations we’re serving right now are Karen (a minority group from Burma), Bhutanese, Ethiopian, and Somali. They’re people who’ve already settled in this area, and some have brought with them the agony of having experienced torture. Their need is very real. CVT is working toward a future where torture no longer exists, and where victims have hope for a new life.“