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A Kansas City nonprofit rescues leftover flower arrangements to brighten life for seniors

 AJ Miller of Unexpected Blooms creates a floral arrangement.
Nikki Overfelt Chifalu
Startland News
AJ Miller of Unexpected Blooms creates a floral arrangement.

Unexpected Blooms accepts leftover flowers with at least 6-inch long stems from events like weddings and galas around the Kansas City area. Volunteers then deconstruct, cut, and arrange the flowers into new bouquets to deliver to about 30 local healthcare facilities.

Impact is growing again for an initiative that sends recycled floral arrangements — flowers otherwise headed for the trash after events — to homebound Kansas City seniors.

Volunteer-run Unexpected Blooms recently celebrated its sixth birthday, after being forced to take a pause when the pandemic stalled many large gatherings from which they sourced flowers, shared board members Nancy Williams and AJ Miller.

Now back in action, the nonprofit operation delivered more than 2,100 bouquets after rescuing flowers from 34 events in the past year.

“Just seeing them there and knowing that they’re going to live on is really neat,” Williams said of picking up flowers after most people expect their usefulness has run its course. “Because they’re gorgeous and they’re fresh and they’re not ready for the dumpster. That is meaningful.”

Unexpected Blooms’ website features a form where community members can sign up to donate leftover flowers (with at least 6-inch long stems) from their events.

Once the flowers are dropped off or picked up — from such gatherings as weddings, galas, celebrations of life, and country club brunches — volunteers deconstruct, cut, and arrange the flowers into new bouquets in vases that are then delivered to about 30 local healthcare facilities.

“They’re not able to get out in the community and so we’re bringing that life into there,” Miller noted, referencing the residents who receive them.

Williams, who is the board chair for Unexpected Blooms and has been volunteering with the organization for almost six years, said people enjoy the unexpected connection of receiving flowers, noting studies by Kansas State and Rutgers universities that show the positive impact flowers have on mental and physical health.

“Just the exchange for a moment is very uplifting,” she explained. “One guy asked me once, ‘Now how much is this going to cost me? I can’t afford any flowers.’ And I said, ‘Sir, these are just for you. They’re a gift.’”

The flowers also allow people to relish in their natural beauty, she continued.

“The fact that the colors, the scent, the touch — all of those — impact how a person thinks about their world,” she added.

A volunteer at Unexpected Blooms helps to create floral arrangements.
Nikki Overfelt Chifalu
Startland News
A volunteer at Unexpected Blooms helps to create floral arrangements.

Unexpected Blooms delivers to healthcare facilities that are located near its two headquarters — Ward Parkway Presbyterian Church and Village Church on Antioch.

Kate Ryan, the assistant executive director at Silvercrest at Deer Creek Senior Living in Overland Park, shared that their partnership with the nonprofit has been a joy. She said it isn’t everyday that the whole facility is in bloom, making those moments after a delivery truly special.

“Our first donation from Unexpected Blooms was so surprisingly beautiful,” she explained. “You could have easily charged a lot of money for such beautiful arrangements, and we — all of a sudden — had a cart of 20 arrangements for free. We drove our cart from apartment to apartment spreading joy to our surprised residents, some who haven’t had fresh flowers since moving in. It was as much fun for our staff to deliver the bouquets as it was for our residents to receive them.”

Some of the memory care facilities, Miller noted, have also mentioned that flowers — like music — can often trigger memories. Williams agreed.

“When I walk into a community of faith on Easter, I am transported back immediately to unloading Easter lilies from the truck into my aunt’s florist shop,” she said.

More than 4,000 vases collected in a year

Unexpected Blooms was founded in 2017 by Prairie Village couple Cameron and Carolyn Elliott, who were retired from the funeral home and floral businesses, respectively, explained Miller.

“They decided that they had seen so much waste in their industry that they would just simply start up an organization that would do something with the florals,” she said.

Unexpected Blooms was founded in 2017 by Prairie Village couple Cameron and Carolyn Elliott
Nikki Overfelt Chifalu
Startland News
Unexpected Blooms was founded in 2017 by Prairie Village couple Cameron and Carolyn Elliott.

Miller first started volunteering with the nonprofit about five years ago when she and her daughter wanted to find an environmentally-conscious organization in which to become involved. On top of just repurposing flowers, she said, she loves that they recycle vases and use leftover rose stems instead of plastic cardettes.

“If we’re not able to use the vases, we will recycle them into the floral industry or donate them to another cause that can reuse the types that they were donated,” she added, as they collected more than 4,000 vases just last year.

Unexpected Blooms has about 80 or so active volunteers, Miller said, who do everything from pickup and delivery to flower arranging to washing vases to administrative tasks.

“It’s been surprising to me how much joy you get from it,” she shared.

Building funding and confidence

Unexpected Blooms is in a reblooming phase right now, noted Williams, who retired from a career in the nonprofit sector. Before the pandemic, she was helping the organization build up to a place where employees could be hired and grants would help sustain it.

But then it had to shut down for over a year — as events stopped and healthcare facilities restricted access — and Unexpected Blooms lost its location for deconstruction and redistribution.

“AJ and I said, ‘We really believe in this mission and we want to continue this,’” she added. “‘Let’s see what we can do.’”

They were able to find two churches to work out of, raised more than $20,000 last year, and received their first grant from the Junior League of Kansas City. They have also added floral design classes for fundraising and volunteer training, as they are always looking for new volunteers.

“The classes have been a way to earn income and also introduce people who want to perhaps be a volunteer or maybe just want to learn,” Williams explained. “My belief is people need the confidence to arrange flowers. They can arrange. It’s not a complicated kind of thing. I think confidence building is a really great part of the classes.”

This story was originally published by Startland News, a fellow member of the KC Media Collective.

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