DUNEDIN — Spreading a little joy doesn't take much. Sometimes one small bouquet will do the trick.
Dawn LaCross, executive director of the newly formed Pinellas nonprofit Random Acts of Flowers, will testify to the joy of both giving and receiving flowers — in this case, flowers that have been recycled from weddings, funerals, special events and even some grocery stores.
"We are not only recycling flowers," LaCross said of RAF, "but we are repurposing the energy behind the flowers each time we deliver."
Launched in early November, the organization has a staff of two, a volunteer board of directors headed by Pam Ora of Dunedin, and some 30 volunteer worker bees who retrieve flowers that might otherwise wilt, die or go to waste. They trim, freshen and rearrange the blooms and deliver them to the ill and the lonely across Pinellas County.
"We spread joy with these flowers," said Monica Kok, director of mission fulfillment who oversees the volunteers. "These flowers might have ended up in the Dumpster behind a funeral home."
Instead, the flowers are brought to a large warehouse on a leafy side street off Main Street in Dunedin, where volunteers create new floral bouquets and put them in clear glass vases for delivery.
As Christmas approached, the women prepared for donations of poinsettia plants and bouquets decorated with the colors of the season. The volunteers won't take Christmas Day off.
"We are going to do Christmas Day deliveries at all our participating hospitals," said LaCross of the five Pinellas hospitals that receive RAF flowers on a weekly, rotating basis: Morton Plant in Clearwater, Mease Countryside in Safety Harbor, Mease Dunedin, Largo Medical Center and Largo Medical Center Indian Rocks.
"Christmas Day is the most difficult day of the year to be in a hospital," LaCross said.
Local donors have played a major role in the success of RAF. In addition to the flowers, donors have contributed warehouse space, roomy offices, office furniture and glass vases in varying shapes and sizes.
One recent morning five women gathered in the warehouse, appearing joyful in their work and in each other's company as they spruced up sprigs of roses, chrysanthemums, snapdragons and alstroemeria blooms in preparation for fresh arrangements.
The reconstructed bouquets, often adorned with added ribbons or bows or bits of raffia, will be delivered to the participating hospitals as well as to Brookside Hospice, local assisted living facilities, nursing homes and rehab centers.
Among the volunteers that morning was Francine Stuart of Palm Harbor. An artist, Stuart first heard of RAF from a chance meeting with Kok. Arranging floral bouquets appealed to her artistic nature.
"I see this as a chance to brighten someone's day and make them feel special," said Stuart of her volunteer work. "You are giving a beautiful piece of yourself and the organization to someone else."
The story of this nonprofit exemplifies how easily good news on giving flowers has traveled. The story began in Knoxville, Tenn., in 2007 when television and film producer Larsen Jay, now 39, suffered a near-fatal fall from a ladder. He received an outpouring of support in the form of flowers.
"They were a great visual reminder of how much support I had," he said of the 30 to 40 bouquets he received the first week of his hospital stay.
Other patients weren't as lucky. When wheeled down the hall, Jay saw many rooms with no visitors and no flowers.
"They were lifeless rooms," he said.
He removed the cards from his bouquets and gave them to the nurses to deliver to other patients. "The flowers changed their day," he was later told.
Thus, an idea flowered. Inspired by the joy of both receiving and giving the bouquets, Jay left his film production job, shifted gears and in 2008, along with his wife Adrian, created Random Acts of Flowers.
The Jays began the organization on a shoestring budget, but were able to find corporate underwriters and private donors to move them along. Later, they organized fundraisers.
"I never thought it could be this successful," said Jay of his enterprise.
Last year LaCross, who had been active in various local nonprofits in the Tampa Bay area, saw a video Jay produced of his near-death experience. Impressed, she flew to Knoxville and convinced him to launch a branch of RAF in Pinellas County.
The Dunedin branch follows the meticulous schedule for pickup, reconstruction, rearrangement and delivery Jay established in Knoxville. The local group already has seen evidence of the same success achieved in Knoxville — lots of donations and lots of happy recipients.
LaCross recently experienced a memorable moment in learning of a recipient's joy. Several weeks ago she took a newly arranged bouquet of flowers to Largo Medical Center. The bouquet was delivered to a hospitalized physician. LaCross was told the physician touched the flowers and loved having them.
The next day she received a call from the physician's daughter.
"The doctor died," LaCross said tearfully. "His daughter told us that touching those flowers had been the last special moment of his life."
Larsen Jay, who now delivers 1,000 bouquets a month to hospitals and nursing homes in Knoxville, is convinced of the power of the single stem. His dream is to establish a branch of his organization in every city in the country.
"The giving of flowers is one of the few gestures that transcend cultures, countries and religions," he said.