Non-profit flower delivery organization finds way to keep the kindness going, even in the face of a pandemic

Inspire Through Flowers President Christine Costello presents a ‘bouquet of gratitude’ to a healthcare hero at Evanston Hospital as part of the nonprofit’s flower delivery efforts. (Photo by Heidi Randhava) Credit: Photo Heidi Randhava

Inspire Through Flowers found an opportunity in a crisis when, just weeks after the Evanston-based non-profit organization first delivered flower arrangements to patients in hospitals and nursing homes, measures to mitigate the pandemic forced them to halt operations.

The break was brief, however, thanks to around 35 active volunteers, who switched 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 – the delivery of its 10,000th bouquet since 2020.

The destination that day was Evanston Hospital in NorthShore, 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 so heartwarming for us, and we’re very grateful,” Alvarado said. “It’s exciting for our teams. We couldn’t be happier with this donation.

Alvarado also presented the 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, hand-wrapped bouquets.

Departments that received flowers included the respiratory team, the lab team handling COVID testing, hospitalists, 5 North and 5 South Searle nursing units, the janitorial service team and members of the intensive care team, according to a hospital spokesperson.

Medical staff at Evanston Hospital in NorthShore display their ‘gratitude bouquets’, created and delivered by Inspire Through Flowers, an Evanston-based nonprofit flower delivery organization. (Photo by Heidi Randhava) Credit: Photo by Heidi Randhava

The ceremony to commemorate the occasion was quick to accommodate the schedules of hospital staff, but the atmosphere was joyful.

“It’s absolutely beautiful and so much appreciated,” said Nikki Fernandez, senior vice president of nursing. “That’s what we do, but to have people do something like this for the nursing team and for the other teams that care for our patients, it’s extremely wonderful.”

In an interview with the Round Table, Costello said: “We would have liked to have had a beautiful bouquet for each person who works in the hospital”

She said the group had delivered “approximately 2,100 bouquets to the six NorthShore hospitals since May 2020”, going at 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 the ITF has delivered hospitals and nursing homes at approximately 90 different sites in the Chicagoland area.

Delivery of the bouquets – in person or by depot – is the final step in a weekly process that begins each Wednesday afternoon at the Levy Senior Center, 300 Dodge Avenue., where volunteers deconstruct flowers donated by local grocery stores and some flower wholesalers. The donated flowers aren’t in the premium condition required for sale, but they’re “still very viable for three to five days,” Costello said.

“Donors are happy to know they can rely on us to remove the flowers from their shop, leaving room for a new shipment,” Costello said, “and we’re thrilled to see what wonderful blooms we receive each week. . A win-win all around.

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 afterwards.

“We were fortunate to find a great partnership at the Levy Senior Center…We are committed to being a 100% reuse, recycle and compost operation there,” Costello said.

On January 30, 2020, ITF volunteers made their first delivery from the Levy Center. In its first six weeks of operation, the group delivered 933 floral arrangements in vases donated to patients in nine different hospitals and nursing homes. Then, in March 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Shutdown measures came into effect, the ITF’s home at the Levy Center was closed and their operations were disrupted.

“Restrictions on non-essential staff in healthcare facilities meant we could no longer make personal deliveries to patients, and soon facilities wouldn’t even be accepting deliveries. When such a facility no longer has its own volunteers, there are no more staff to deliver flowers from a depot,” Costello said.

The ITF volunteers were disappointed but unwavering when their mission was temporarily put on hold, especially 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 address pandemic challenges. When they were unable to provide accommodations to patients due to COVID-19 restrictions, the ITF launched an “Encouragement Cards” initiative.

“We’re targeting a hospital or a veterans’ retirement home, and our volunteers send their personal messages of hope and encouragement to patients,” Costello said, adding that more than 3,500 cards have been sent out so far.

During times when their operations were suspended, Costello said they stayed in touch with flower donors, reassuring them that they would be back as soon as possible. In May 2020, the ITF had pivoted to create “gratitude bouquets” for healthcare workers and first responders, working in volunteer garages, even on days when temperatures exceeded 90 degrees.

“The cold weather temporarily shut us down, but as soon as the snow melted, we went back to our garages until Levy reopened,” Costello said. The senior center is still the organization’s home base, although they opened a second location in October 2021 at Amvets Post 66 in Wheeling, she said.

Costello pointed out that a group of dedicated and creative volunteers have succeeded in fulfilling the ITF’s mission “to deliver beautiful flowers with a personal moment of connection and encouragement to those who need it most” – all this during a pandemic.

It seems fitting that the ITF celebrated its landmark delivery of 10,000 bouquets, carefully created at the Levy Senior Center, to healthcare workers at Evanston Hospital.

“It’s worth seeing the people you deliver to. It’s so nice to see people smiling – even through their masks,” said ITF volunteer Julie Bode.

“It was exceptional love,” added ITF volunteer Deidre von Moltke. “They gave us such a warm welcome.”

Inspire Through Flowers volunteers applaud healthcare heroes at Evanston Hospital. Pictured, left to right: Nikki Fernandez, senior vice president of nursing; Mary Alvarado, vice president of clinical operations; Christine Costello, President of the ITF; Julie Bode, ITF volunteer; Cathy Palivos, Treasurer, ITF; Lauren Shapiro, ITF volunteer; Deidre von Moltke, ITF volunteer, and Ellen Mink, secretary, ITF. (Photo by Heidi Randhava) Credit: Photo by Heidi Randhava

Terisa K. Carn