Evanston news delivered free to your inbox!
Inspire Through Flowers found opportunity in a crisis when, just weeks after the Evanston-based nonprofit’s first delivery of flower arrangements to patients in hospitals and nursing homes, pandemic mitigation measures forced them to halt operations.
The hiatus was brief, though, thanks to about 35 active volunteers, who transitioned to making bouquets to honor “healthcare heroes and first-responders,” according to Christine Costello, ITF president and founding partner.
On March 3, the all-volunteer service organization celebrated a milestone – delivering its 10,000th bouquet since 2020.
The destination that day was NorthShore’s Evanston Hospital, where Mary Alvarado, vice president of clinical operations accepted 143 “bouquets of gratitude” to share with healthcare workers. Each bouquet came with two “thank you” cards.
“It’s just so heartwarming for us, and we’re so grateful,” Alvarado said. “This is exciting for our teams. We couldn’t be happier for this donation.”
Alvarado also presented ITF with a contribution of $2,500 on behalf of NorthShore University HealthSystem.
Representatives from each of the hospital departments joined Alvarado in accepting the brightly colored and hand-wrapped bouquets.
The departments that received flowers included the respiratory team, the lab team that handles COVID testing, hospitalists, nursing units on 5 North and 5 South Searle, the concierge service team and the ICU team members, according to a hospital spokesperson.
The ceremony to commemorate the occasion was quick, to accommodate the schedules of hospital staff, but the atmosphere was joyous.
“This is absolutely beautiful, and so appreciated,” said Nikki Fernandez, senior vice president of nursing. “This is what we do, but to have people do something like this for the nursing team and for the other teams that take care of our patients is overwhelmingly wonderful.”
In an interview with the RoundTable, Costello said, “We wish we had a beautiful bouquet for every single person who works in the hospital”
She said the group has delivered “about 2,100 bouquets to the six NorthShore hospitals since May, 2020,” going to most at least twice.
“When hospital staff say, ‘You have no idea what this means to us,’ I say, ‘Yes we do. That’s why we do it,’” Costello said.
In addition to hospitals in the NorthShore system, Costello said ITF has delivered to hospitals and nursing homes at about 90 different sites throughout the Chicagoland area.
Delivery of the bouquets – either in-person or via drop-off – is the final step in a weekly process that begins every Wednesday afternoon at the Levy Senior Center, 300 Dodge Ave., where volunteers deconstruct flowers donated by local grocery stores and some floral wholesalers. Donated flowers are not in the premium condition required for sale, but they are “still very viable for three to five days,” Costello said.
“The donors are pleased to know that they can count on us to clear the flowers from their shop, leaving room for a new shipment,” Costello said, “and we are delighted to see what wonderful flowers we receive each week. A win-win all around.”
The volunteers return to the Levy Center every Thursday from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., to arrange the flowers into beautiful bouquets. They personally deliver them immediately afterward.
“We were so fortunate to find a great partnership in the Levy Senior Center … We are committed to being a 100% repurpose, recycle and compost operation there,” Costello said.
On Jan. 30, 2020, ITF volunteers made their inaugural delivery from the Levy Center. During their first six weeks of operation, the group delivered 933 flower arrangements in donated vases to patients in nine different hospitals and nursing homes. Then in March of 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Shutdown measures went into effect, ITF’s home at the Levy Center was closed and their operations were upended.
“Restrictions on non-essential personnel at health-care facilities meant we could no longer do personal deliveries to the patients, and soon enough, facilities would not even accept drop-offs. When such a facility no longer has their own volunteers, there are no staff to deliver flowers from a drop-off,” Costello said.
ITF volunteers were disappointed but undaunted when their mission was temporarily put on hold, particularly at a time “when patients and hospital staff could really use the gift of flowers to lift their spirits,” Costello said.
Founding partners Ellen Mink, Cathy Palivos, and Costello used innovation to tackle pandemic-related challenges. When they could not deliver arrangements to patients because of COVID-19 restrictions, ITF launched a “Cards of Encouragement” initiative.
“We target a veteran’s hospital or nursing home, and our volunteers send their personal messages of hope and encouragement to the patients there,” said Costello, adding that more than 3,500 cards have been mailed to date.
During times when their operations were on hold, Costello said they kept in touch with flower donors, reassuring them that they would be back as soon as possible. By May 2020, ITF had pivoted to making “bouquets of gratitude” for healthcare workers and first-responders, working out of volunteers’ garages, even on days when temperatures soared above 90 degrees.
“The cold weather shut us down temporarily, but as soon as the snow melted, we were back at it in our garages until Levy opened up again,” Costello said. The senior center is still the organization’s home base, although they opened a second location in October 2021 at the Amvets Post 66 in Wheeling, she said.
Costello emphasized that a dedicated, creative group of volunteers has succeeded in fulfilling ITF’s mission “of delivering beautiful flowers with a personal moment of connection and encouragement to those who need it most” – all during a pandemic.
It seems fitting that ITF celebrated its milestone delivery of 10,000 bouquets, created with care at the Levy Senior Center, to healthcare workers at Evanston Hospital.
“It makes it all worthwhile when you get to see the people you deliver to. It’s just so nice to see people smile – even through their masks,” ITF volunteer Julie Bode said.
“This was exceptional love,” added ITF volunteer Deidre von Moltke. “They gave us such a warm welcome.”