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Handfuls of happiness

LIFESTYLE | Volunteer retirees say delivering free flowers to the lonely is “better than candy”

Volunteers Belinda Gregory, Barbara Butcher, Nancy Veres, and Andy Manc arrange flowers at Lake Louise Park in Weaverville, N.C. Photo by Jen Curtis

Handfuls of happiness
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JEANNIE BLACKWELDER turns her red van down the wrong road, again. As she turns around, she talks and gestures with her right hand as her left hand guides the steering wheel through the idyllic streets of Weaverville, N.C. Her destination: the assisted care home. Her delivery: fresh flowers.

About an hour earlier, Blackwelder and a group of lifelong friends gathered at a lakeside park in town. These women, now retirees, laugh together while making flower arrangements for lonely residents at hospitals and nursing homes. Their program, an affiliate of a national organization called Random Acts of Flowers, spreads hope and joy through colorful arrangements.

These women have decided not to waste their retirement years. Instead, they’re using them to give back to their local community.

At the park, Nancy Veres shows off her newest craft project to help the cause. She used a saw and a rock polisher to make much-needed vases out of repurposed wine bottles.

“I used the rock polisher to take it down so you wouldn’t get cut. Hopefully we can get a faster process because this one takes too long,” explains Veres.

Blackwelder has a gift of bringing people together. Six years ago, she started a book club for this friend group. The “Loosely Bound” girls, as they called themselves, met a few times before realizing they couldn’t agree on which books to read. They began volunteering together instead.

Today they joke and giggle as they work. Barbara Butcher and Belinda Gregory cut flowers and arrange them in an assorted ­collection of vases. They place baby’s breath with daisies and roses. They add water and pack them in boxes. Then they load the flowers into Blackwelder’s van and it’s time for deliveries.

The volunteers with Random Acts of Flowers create each arrangement with care.

The volunteers with Random Acts of Flowers create each arrangement with care. Photo by Jen Curtis

The group hosts workshops on Valentine’s Day, Easter, and Mother’s Day when grocery stores and local florists donate holiday “leftovers.” Other times of the year, they put together spur-of-the-moment workshops when donations come in from events at nearby Biltmore Estate or Grove Park Inn. The flowers’ shelf life is limited, but the group’s retirement schedule allows for flexibility.

Blackwelder and Butcher first heard about Random Acts of Flowers from a friend. They started an Asheville chapter a year ago equipped with little more than enthusiasm and a network of willing hands, but the work has been challenging. The women collect vases and clippers, but are still looking for a permanent space to store these items. Without a dedicated workspace, they meet at the park to make the arrangements. They hope someone will donate a van to make deliveries easier.

Blackwelder drops off today’s arrangements at an assisted care home where a nurse will pass them out to the residents most in need of encouragement. Most places follow a policy of restricting volunteer visitors for the safety of the people in care. But sometimes the ladies get to deliver the flowers themselves. They all agree the best part of the job is watching the faces of the people receiving their gifts.

“It is unbelievable joy that you get when you give flowers to someone and they don’t even know who you are,” says Butcher. “The families of people at the nursing home sometimes say, ‘Who do we owe?’ And we say, ‘You don’t owe anybody.’”

It is unbelievable joy that you get when you give flowers to someone and they don’t even know who you are.

On this day, someone at the rehabilitation wing of the assisted care facility invites Blackwelder and Butcher to help with deliveries. Beige halls are filled with medical equipment and the smell of sickness. The bright orange daisies and yellow lilies stand out in the drab space.

One female resident sits in a chair, face crumpled in sadness and pain, head wrapped in a surgical bandage. Once the flowers are placed in front of her, she tries to hold them, but she is so weak it takes too much effort. When she realizes the flowers are for her, her face changes, slowly and laboriously, revealing a smile.

“How are you feeling?” the nurse asks.

She replies, “A little rough, but the flowers will make me feel better.”

Another patient, Ms. Dottie, also gets a special delivery. “I’m going to put them right here so I can see them while I get my hair brushed,” she says proudly.

After finishing the deliveries, Blackwelder takes the extra vases to a temporary storage area. The ladies aren’t sure when their next flower day will be. They hope to persuade more hotels, funeral homes, and grocery stores to donate flowers they would otherwise throw away.

Meanwhile, they are working to spread the word in Weaverville: Already, the local elementary school collected vases and the Main Street gas station hosted a fundraiser. The ladies can’t wait for their next opportunity to make these presents for patients.

“Who couldn’t get joy out of flowers? It’s better than candy,” says Butcher. “It’s better than chocolate chip cookies. It’s glory to God when you see the colors. They are something else. He uses that to give us peace and hope and comfort.”

—Jen Curtis is a graduate of the 2023 World Journalism Institute mid-career course


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