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Volunteers band together to revive recycled-bouquet program

New group emerges out of nonprofit Random Acts of Flowers of Silicon Valley

From left, Robin Bantz, Patti Murray and Lady Bess Fishback select flowers they want to use in their flower arrangements after volunteers sorted flowers donated by local businesses including Trader Joe's and Whole Foods which will be made into arrangements by the volunteers as part of the Avenidas Blooms program. Photo by Veronica Weber.

Weddings, bar mitzvahs, funerals — they all spell opportunity for Avenidas Blooms, a volunteer group that recycles, rearranges and distributes floral arrangements to the sick, the elderly and those in need of some spontaneous cheer.

"When you do a delivery, sometimes the reaction you get is that people will burst into tears. It's amazing, just incredible," said Menlo Park resident Anne Klause, who is among the 30 or so volunteers that meet once a week at Cubberley Community Center to sort and arrange flowers that are delivered to recipients at the VA Hospital, local senior centers and other health facilities.

"Just making these floral arrangements gives me so much joy," said Los Altos resident Robin Bantz while sorting flowers on a recent Wednesday. "You're not only doing something positive for the individual receiving it ... but there's something magical about putting color in your hands, putting flowers and greenery together."

The following morning, Bantz's floral creations landed at the Rose Kleiner Center in Mountain View, where clients in the memory-care program could admire them and choose one to take home.

Krause, Bantz and the other volunteers came together earlier this year to form the group when the nonprofit Random Acts of Flowers of Silicon Valley called it quits after its monthly rent doubled to $8,000. During its three years of operation, the nonproft — which was part of the national Random Acts of Flowers organization that is still in operation elsewhere — delivered nearly 32,000 bouquets and recycled more than 39,000 vases, according to its website.

The Silicon Valley group also developed a cadre of exceptionally enthusiastic volunteers, some of whom were working as many as four days a week and participating in every step, from picking up leftover flowers, rearranging them and personally delivering them to the bedside.

"When it closed its doors, people were broken hearted," said Klause, who had been four-day-a-week volunteer. "It was awful, just awful. There were several people who said, 'We've got to keep this up. Even if we make only five bouquets and deliver them to the VA once a week, that's what we'll do.'"

Klause was among the volunteers who came knocking on the door of nonprofit senior services agency Avenidas in a bid to find a new home for the activity.

"We heard about (the closure of Random Acts of Flowers) and decided to reach out and let the volunteers know we planned to do the same mission here," said Jyllian Halliburton, volunteer program manager at Avenidas in Palo Alto.

"We started to get contacted by the volunteers and we got about 30-plus volunteers reaching out to us. They were just so excited."

For now, Avenidas has made space for flower sorting and arranging in a large classroom at its Cubberley Community Center site every Wednesday, but workers are already agitating for more days of the week. Some said they additionally volunteer at one of two other known spinoffs of Random Acts of Flowers: Blossom Buddies in Menlo Park and Flowers of Comfort in San Jose.

Many of the volunteers have maintained their earlier relationships with local donor retailers, florists and markets.

"There's nothing that excites us as much as a bucket of day-old or week-old flowers," said Palo Alto resident Barbara Levin, as the group cheered the arrival of a new bucket of leftovers from Mills Florist. Levin is a longtime volunteer who routinely collects cast-offs from Trader Joe's in Palo Alto. Others pick up from Trader Joe's in Menlo Park and a branch of Whole Foods.

"We never know what flowers or vases we're going to have to work with, so every time we come in it's a new and interesting experience and it's a way of showing off our creative side," Levin said.

The women have no trouble unpacking funeral wreaths and other event-specific arrangements to "create something more interesting," Klause said. But in some cases the used flowers are not fresh enough for a second life and must be discarded.

Volunteer Sandra Bachman, a Woodside resident, said her favorite place to deliver is Stanford University Hospital.

"To go in and see patients that do not have any flowers or visitors and walk in with a bouquet and for five minutes they forget about their problems," Bachman said. "They open their eyes and to get that smile, and to hear through that family what a difference that can make for healing ... A lot of the nurses say it helps them heal. It brings the outside in, the sunshine in."

For more information about Avenidas Blooms, write to info@avenidas.org or call 650-289-5400.

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