Delivered with love: Flower Angels USA repurposes blooms into uplifting bouquets

by The Cape Cod Times
Originally posted Aug. 2, 2016 at 10:29 AM

Two days before my grandmother died from Alzheimer’s disease, my mother and I were sitting vigil at her bedside at the Pavilion, a nursing home in Hyannis.

It was the week before Christmas and the halls were virtually empty — many families extremely busy due to the holiday season — and all of a sudden a young man walked in with a small, festive flower arrangement for Virginia Wheeler, my grandmother.

The bouquet was so sudden and unexpected that my mother thought it must be a mistake until she witnessed other men and women passing arrangement after arrangement to every single resident in the building.

After stopping one of the representatives, we found out that the flowers were being distributed by Flower Angels, USA — a Yarmouth nonprofit organization that partners with businesses like Shaw’s, Trader Joe’s, Wychmere Beach Club, Cape Abilities and Community Connections Inc. to provide nursing home residents from Provincetown to Bourne with free monthly flower deliveries.

Although my grandmother didn’t realize the flowers were there, the kindness of it all hit my mother, Judi Devaney, like a ton of bricks and she immediately began to cry. She said for some reason the flowers made her feel like someone out there took the time to care for my nana.

I would find out later, after spending the day with Suzanne Carter, founder of Flower Angels USA, that 85 percent of people in nursing homes rarely get a visitor, and 60 percent of them have never had a visitor, which is why my mother’s reaction was a common one. It’s also why Carter, along with roughly 100 volunteers, works so hard every Monday and Thursday to provide 2,000 nursing home and hospice beds on Cape Cod with what she calls “bouquets of sunshine and joy.”

The Yarmouth operation, which I visited last Thursday, is impressive with its warm and friendly energy, as well as its rows of gorgeous flowers: sprays of roses, bunches of carnations, heaps of baby’s breath, and overflowing buckets of sunflowers, peonies, bells of Ireland, chrysanthemums, gardenias, and gladiolas — their scent and bright colors lighting up the room like a sudden burst of fireworks.

Surrounding the beautiful blooms were scores of women hustling and bustling, arms filled with flowers, fingers working quickly to create the required 100 bouquets for the day — each one set with a Flower Angels USA card and message of hope and love.

While each volunteer was immersed in activity, one woman immediately whisked my daughter Fressia off “to create,” and the rest continued to confer with one another about color and design, as well as appropriate receptacles which included pots, vases, antique tea cups, and mugs, all of which are donated by residents and businesses throughout the Cape.

Carter, who emerged from the “cold room” where the supply of flowers is kept, explained that the charitable organization, formed in 2011, is possible only because of the businesses that contribute in many different ways.

Trader Joe’s in Hyannis and Shaw’s in Hyannis and Yarmouth, for example, donate expired flowers to Carter, and ask for nothing in return. Once store staff indicates which flowers will be headed to Flower Angels USA each week, Cape Abilities and Community Connections staff then arrive at each location and load up the van and truck the flowers to Yarmouth, where they are deconstructed and arranged.

“We work with dedicated staff members at each store and they take incredible care of the flowers and when they arrive here you would never know they have been cut from the stem for two weeks already,” Carter said. “These businesses take their own time to reach out to us and support us and it’s camaraderie like that, that makes Cape Cod so special.”

Surprisingly, another part of the team are brides and grooms from all over the country who choose Cape Cod as their wedding destinations. During the wedding planning process, businesses like Wychmere Beach Club, which is owned by Longwood Venue and Destinations, asks their clients what they would like to do with their flowers once the wedding and reception is over. Amanda Hennessey, director of sales at Wychmere, explained that couples are often delighted to find out that the $500 to $10,000 they’ve spent on center pieces can be repurposed through Flower Angels USA.

“Often families are departing the next day on planes or are heading home to somewhere else in the country and they can’t take the flowers with them but they also don’t want to throw them away,” Hennessey said. “Having this option is special and makes our clients, as well as our staff, feel like they are making a difference and that’s what really counts for us.”

And while nursing home residents are benefitting greatly from the organization’s efforts, volunteers are also feeling the love. Irene Chausse, 91, has been working with Carter for two years and has not only become crowned the “Queen Angel.” She calls the group her “saving grace” and through tears she said her “fellow Angels” have given her a new purpose and lease on life.

“I felt like I wanted to do something for other people and this has been wonderful for me and it literally saved me from a do-nothing life,” Chausse said. “I have never felt so special before I came here and I have not only found great friends — but a family.”

For Rebecca Thomson, the last two years at the organization have given her the opportunity to use the skills she learned as a flower design expert at the New York Botanical Gardens. After retiring to the Cape, she found out about Flower Angels USA and decided to teach others about her former career and said it’s become her joy to collaborate and encourage longevity.

“We work fast and even though you can’t tell, we are thinking about how to create a cohesive look that will bring together the beautiful colors in the best way possible,” Thomson said. “Because these bouquets are being delivered with love we want them to last so we need to be careful and take our time so they don’t wilt over night.”

And while both ladies have found friendship and adventure through the organization, they also admit that it’s hard work — especially for Carter who often puts in 80 to 100 hours a week. Even after winning the 2015 Myra Kraft Community MVP award through the New England Patriots Charitable Foundation, which allowed the organization to afford its delivery van, Carter explained that Flower Angels USA can be tough for her to keep going at times. But when she begins to feel down, or doubts herself, she thinks back to her mother, Helen, whom she cared for at the Seashore Point nursing home in Provincetown.

The duo, who visited every day, would take weekly trips to BJ’s Wholesale Club to buy cookies, candy, and treats which they would pass out to all the residents who didn’t receive visitors. Carter continued the process for two years before her mother’s death, and realized that it was Helen’s dying wish for Carter to continue.

With that thought in mind, she took the money her mother left her and used every penny on Flower Angels USA, dedicating the organization to her mother, as well as her daughter Mara, who was born with special needs. Five years later, she prides herself on the relationships she has created among local businesses, organizations that help people like her daughter find work throughout the area, and the many volunteers that flock to her shop every week. With too many to thank, she said they remain united in their mission of love.

“When I think I can’t do it one more second, I go get 40 bouquets and I go get my daughter and I head to the nearest nursing home and then I remember why we do this,” she said. “Everyone that walks through my door is an earth angel and we tell each other, as well as our nursing home residents, ‘You are not alone’ and we mean it.”

Rachael Devaney is a Times columnist. She can be reached at rachaeldevaney@yahoo.com