Meet Ngoc Lam-Mathis, a probation-officer-turned-florist who is co-owner of Floraltology in Southwest Philly.
• Tough as nails: “I’m 5′1″ but I had a title in probation. They called me ‘The Hammer.’ I’m very serious with my work.”
• What’s in a name?: “The shop was supposed to be called Moonlight Flower, but once you work at probation that sounds like a strip club so I couldn’t do it.”
Ngoc Lam-Mathis’ parents wanted to give her something nobody could take away — an education and a chance to live her life however she wanted.
After her father, a high-ranking officer in the South Vietnamese government, spent seven years in a North Vietnamese prison camp following the fall of Saigon, her parents knew all too well how everything can be taken away in an instant.
So when their family of eight got the chance to immigrate to Philadelphia from Vietnam in 1995, they took it.
“My parents didn’t want us to stay in a country where we can’t do or be what we want to be,” Lam-Mathis said. “So they sacrificed their lives to be here for a better future.”
Today, after a 13-year career as a Philly probation officer working with high-risk clients, Lam-Mathis, 36, is finally where she wants to be, doing what she wants to do, as the co-owner with her brother of Floraltology in Southwest Philly.
“I couldn’t make changes in probation, but I’m making changes here,” she said.
Lam-Mathis was 11 when her family moved from Vietnam to Philadelphia, where one of her uncles already lived. For six months both families — totaling 12 people — shared a Southwest Philly rowhouse with one bathroom.
“The first few months was pretty chaotic for us,” she said. “We had to start school. We didn’t understand how to use the shower and toilets. Everything was new, so we had a lot to learn.”
Devout Catholics, the Lam family began attending a Vietnamese community church that held services in the basement of St. Francis De Sales in West Philly.
Lam-Mathis’ father volunteered her to create floral arrangements for Sunday services. The priest would buy a bouquet of flowers and let Lam-Mathis decorate the altar.
“It wasn’t by choice in the beginning,” she said.
Over time though, she grew gifted at the craft and found peace in it, but a single event in her teens led her to pursue another career first.
When Lam-Mathis was 14, a police officer pulled over her father while she was in the car. She wasn’t sure why, because her dad was a cautious driver and she didn’t see him do anything wrong.
“The police officer said we ran a red light and gave us a ticket,” she said. “So I said at that point ‘I want to be a lawyer someday.’”
After graduating from Bartram Motivation High School in 2002, Lam-Mathis attended Temple University where she majored in criminology, minored in religion, and received her certificate in floral design, all while working at a neighborhood flower shop.
She decided being an attorney was not the path for her, so when a friend suggested she take the test to become a probation officer, she did, and she passed.
“It’s not a field where a lot of Asians go into,” Lam-Mathis said. “They saw my name and called me in for an interview.”
Lam-Mathis worked in adult probation with high-risk clients, mostly men who had been convicted of sexual assault and domestic violence crimes. The 13 years she served as a probation officer shaped her world view, but it didn’t sour it.
“I don’t take people for granted. I could be on that side of the desk, easily,” she said. “What I learned is you’ll be really happy if you can change one person in your entire career in probation.”
Lam-Mathis hopes she changed a few.
» MORE WE THE PEOPLE: Jelloman is a music festival hustler and Kurt Vile’s brother
While working in probation, Lam-Mathis obtained her graduate degree in criminology at St. Joseph’s University. On the side, she created floral arrangements for friends and colleagues, always dreaming of opening her own shop someday.
“I knew I needed to do something I enjoyed,” she said. “It’s not like I want to be 50 talking with a 30-year-old saying ‘Why did you smoke weed again?’”
In March 2018, Lam-Mathis passed Flowers by Dante, a longtime staple on 63rd Street in Southwest Philly, and saw it was for sale. She wrote to the owner and told him of her dream.
He agreed to sell to her instead of the buyer who wanted to turn his shop into apartments. Lam-Mathis got a few friends to lend her the money and went in as co-owners with her brother, Thi Lam, who manages the business side.
On Dec. 1, 2018, Floraltology opened its doors. Fifteen months later, COVID-19 and quarantine hit, shuttering the shop for three months. Customers messaged Lam-Mathis asking if they could help in any way, or preorder flowers for the future.
» MORE WE THE PEOPLE: For 50 years, this foster dad has kept the heat on at one of the country’s first HBCUs
“We’re really proud of the community support,” she said. “We have a lot of return customers and that’s what we strive for.”
In September, Lam-Mathis, who is married to a probation officer, gave birth to their third child.
“I am fortunate enough to find contentment. I am very at ease at the flower shop,” she said. “I like the fact I’m in control of what I do and what I create, and I get encouragement from seeing people appreciate the joy of flowers.”