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Good to Know: Childhood friends recycle flowers into bouquets for seniors

"Flowers that otherwise would be thrown away, and visiting people in memory care? It's a win-win," says Karen Wooldridge, whose father died from Alzheimer's disease.

Wealshire resident Lorraine Erdmann is surprised by fresh

Wealshire resident Lorraine Erdmann is surprised by fresh flowers from Jill McCarty, a volunteer with Bluebirds & Birds, in early February in Bloomington, Minn. Photo Credit: Minneapolis Star Tribune (TNS)/Leila Navidi

On a cold and snowy day in early February, Laura Hogan and Jill McCarty delivered warmth and a whiff of spring to residents at Wealshire of Bloomington.

Hogan and McCarty handed bouquets of vibrant roses, tulips and mums in pint-size Mason jars twined with a tag reading “Thinking of you” to seniors at the memory care facility in Bloomington, Minnesota.

“We see lots of smiles when we come in with flowers, especially all the bright colors in the dreary winter,” said Hogan, co-founder of the nonprofit Bluebirds & Blooms.

Delivering the floral bunches and visiting with residents is Hogan’s favorite part of running Bluebirds, which she launched with friend Karen Wooldridge just over a year ago.

Their simple mission of giving a gift of recycled flowers to bring joy to seniors living with memory loss or long-term illness has sprouted into a flourishing enterprise.

“Flowers are instant conversation starters,” said Wooldridge. And the blooms and scents spark memories, such as a big backyard garden or a fondness for yellow roses, added Hogan.

McCarty, a volunteer whose mother was in memory care a decade ago, visits with residents for a few minutes “and we leave something behind they can enjoy for days,” she said.

Personalizing bouquets

Over time, they’ve learned to take cues from the seniors. “One man was wearing a Vikings sweatshirt, so we made him a purple and yellow arrangement,” recalled Hogan.

The benefits go beyond holding and smelling pretty roses. Residents often will help Bluebirds & Blooms volunteers deliver the flowers to other residents.

“It helps give them purpose and a feeling of accomplishment,” said Sheryl Hassan, director of life enrichment at Wealshire.

A little bird and a job helping seniors guided Wooldridge and Hogan down the nonprofit path. They grew up in Edina, Minnesota, were Bluebirds — younger age Camp Fire Girls — and graduated from Edina East High School in 1981. They lost touch after attending different colleges — Hogan at St. Olaf College and Wooldridge at the University of Minnesota — and became immersed in careers and families.

In a stroke of luck six years ago, both were hired by Gentle Transitions, which offers senior relocation services. There, they renewed their friendship.

Hogan read a story about an Idaho gardener who started her own nonprofit to deliver flowers to people in hospice.

“It made so much sense and seemed easy to do,” she said. Hogan’s daughter told her to stop talking about it — and just do it.

Hogan teamed up with flower lover Wooldridge, and Bluebirds & Blooms took root.

“We did a few trial runs and the residents were just thrilled about it,” said Hogan, of Edina, noting that their knowledge of Minnesota's Twin Cities senior communities proved invaluable. They deconstructed, assembled and arranged bouquets on the islands in their kitchens.

Wooldridge, of Shorewood, marveled at how a simple gesture has such meaningful impact.

“Flowers that otherwise would be thrown away, and visiting people in memory care? It’s a win-win,” said Wooldridge, whose father died from Alzheimer’s disease.

Growing volunteers

The duo built a website, bluebirdsandblooms.com, to organize volunteers, accept private donations and set up sources for the repurposed flowers, which come from weddings, corporate events, fundraisers and such grocery stores as Trader Joe’s and Fresh Thyme.

A pool of more than 100 volunteers picks up flowers, designs the arrangements and delivers bedside bouquets twice a week to 25 suburban and Minneapolis senior memory and hospice care communities every month.

“It’s great to see it taking off,” Hogan said. “The residents, their families and volunteers are touched by it.”

Last February, they partnered with the Edina Community Foundation to help manage the nonprofit. At that spring’s fundraiser, “we were bragging about delivering 200 bouquets,” Hogan said. “In the next few weeks, we’ll be at 5,000.”

Hogan and Wooldridge have since moved from their kitchens to a work space in Edina. They each volunteer about 25 hours a week for Bluebirds & Blooms.

“But it doesn’t feel like work,” said Wooldridge. “It’s fun.”

For more Act 2 stories, visit newsday.com/Act2.

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