Lots of people love flowers. But few love flowers as much as the people of Petals Please.
This Chester County nonprofit rescues and repurposes beautiful blooms from weddings, funerals, corporate events, and other occasions.
Volunteers pick up the donations, disassemble the sprays and centerpieces, trim the blossoms, and create teacup bouquets and other small arrangements for delivery to senior citizens like May Hiltebeitel.
“Flowers are heartwarming and wonderful,” Hiltebeitel, 101, said from the Simpson Meadows Retirement Community in Downingtown — the town where the garden she once created outside her own home on a busy street became a local landmark.
“Petals Please brings so much happiness to us old folks living alone,” Hiltebeitel said. “In fact, it’s the next best thing to your grandchildren coming to visit.”
Petals Please, founded in 2018, has created and delivered about 8,000 floral gifts throughout Chester County. Most of the recipients are in nursing homes, hospice care, or are Meals on Wheels clients; some have few visitors and look forward to the arrival of a volunteer bearing a bouquet. Petals Please also offers a program to provide elementary school students bouquets to give to families or friends.
“It’s such a little gesture,” founder Beth Adams, of Downingtown, said. “But it’s so uplifting.”
And not just for bouquet recipients, added Tina Sauk, a retired florist who lives in West Grove and is among 140 Petals Please volunteers: “Even though I don’t know the recipients, it doesn’t matter. The bouquet is made with happiness and given out of love.”
The seed that became Petals Please started germinating about two years ago, while Adams, a retired pharmaceutical marketing professional, was working at a hospice. “I went to a local florist and to a funeral home to ask if they had flowers that would [otherwise] be discarded,” recalled Adams, 64. “Myself and a staff member put together little bouquets for patients.”
Adams also was inspired by the reaction of a family friend who had once been an avid gardener. “I sent over some flowers I had arranged, and he was so thankful,” she said. “He just missed his garden so much.”
Doing research online, Adams found no national organization, let alone a template for putting together a sustainable, all-volunteer flower recovery and repurposing system. But a Northeastern Pennsylvania group was having great success with an approach similar to her idea. So she drove to Scranton, where the volunteers of Petals for Goodness Sake were “so generous and so helpful,” Adams said. “It was, OK, let’s do this.”
She began networking from home, calling friends and neighbors. “Because I worked in hospice I knew all of the nursing homes and the assisted living places, and I knew a lot of staff there,” said Adams. “Unfortunately, I knew a lot of funeral directors.”
In July 2018, a volunteer picked up the first donation and returned ”with so many flowers in her SUV you couldn’t even see her.”
Petals Please has since shifted its arranging sessions from Adams’ dining-room table to a space at Downingtown United Methodist Church. Flowers and vases or other containers are donated, and everything gets recycled, including flower petals, which get taken to a chicken farm in Malvern.
Amelia Wondrasch especially enjoys that task. A 15-year-old student at Episcopal Academy in Newtown Square whose family is close to the Adamses, she has been a volunteer pretty much from the beginning.
“I’ve always been a big one for recycling and composting,” she said. “And I love the idea of being able to repurpose the flowers.”
As has been the case in pretty much every aspect of life these days, the pandemic disrupted the work of Petals Please, too. Flower donations from stalwart sources such as funeral homes, banquet halls, and other event spaces dried up. Schools and churches closed and care facilities of all kinds were on lockdown.
So for a time, Petals Please shifted to making paper arrangements, which have become a specialty of Sauk’s. “Sunflowers are my favorite, because it’s one of my favorite flowers anyway,” she said. “The orange poppy is another one of my favorites. I use gift-wrapping tissue."
Turns out the do-it-yourself ethos of Petals Please even comes in handy during a pandemic.
Lately, flower donations have picked up. The organization also has begun to expand its geographical reach into southernmost Chester County, where the Winterthur Museum in nearby Wilmington regularly donates all of the flowers that grace the facility to Petals Please; and a satellite group of volunteers has sprung up to arrange and deliver bouquets to local recipients.
The mission remains “an all-volunteer, free service that recycles flowers that otherwise would die, and using them to spread joy to our elders,” said Adams.
Joy is not too strong a word, said Nancy McGready, activity director at the Pocopson Home, in Chester County.