Q&A: Larsen Jay, founder
Random Acts of Flowers may be one of Knoxville’s most well known nonprofits. That’s because its mission makes so much sense that it’s remarkable no one thought to do it before 2008: The national organization takes flowers and bouquets that would otherwise be discarded and redistributes them to patients in hospitals, nursing homes, senior care facilities, and hospices. It provides some emotional well being and encouragement when people need it most.
As it approaches its 250,000th delivery nine years later, we checked in with founder Larsen Jay on how his brainstorm has evolved into a national phenomenon.
How did you originally come up with this concept?
Almost 10 years ago I was in a near fatal accident and quite lucky to be here, and I had a ladder collapse out from underneath me and I fell about a story and a half and broke every bone in my body and ended up in the hospital for quite a long time in ICU (intensive care unit) in the trauma department, and got overwhelmed with support, and that came in the way of flowers.
I had never been given flowers, most guys have never been given flowers in their life, and by the end of the first week we had 20 to 30 bouquets in my room, and it was really a jungle of joy and happiness. It showed me how much support I had during my recovery. When I went around the halls, I noticed how many rooms around us on that bad trauma floor had no flowers, no plants, no visitors, just lifeless, and so it just seemed obvious to me.
We went back and loaded up my wheelchair. We started making deliveries, and started taking this thing that was given to me and offering it to someone who had no one and nothing, and it really made a big impact. As I was recovering I thought, “Surely somebody must be doing this with all the flowers that are thrown away everyday, somebody must be helping.” There wasn’t an organization, and so a year and a day to my accident, we started Random Acts of Flowers with the simple concept of giving back to the community, finding a use for this great product that still had life left to give, and just went for it with true entrepreneurial spirit coupled with sort of the social services side and grew it from there.
So you had to go around these florists and ask them to give away their extra flowers—what did they think of your idea?
When we first started, everybody sort of raised an eyebrow and said “I kind of get it, but explain it a little bit more.” When we first started talking to the floral industry, what we got was actually much more positive response than we thought, because they had always said, “We put so much time and effort into these arrangements, and then they literally get thrown away at the end of the night.” They want to know that their product and their work is going to help somebody else—they hate to throw out this beautiful product. So they were very happy to partner with us. They knew we weren’t competing against them, and knew we were literally taking this perishable product.
It’s kind of like the bakery not throwing away the bread that’s a couple days old, but working with a food bank. A food bank feeds the body, we feed the soul, and that’s really the uniqueness of Random Acts of Flowers. Same thing when we went to the health care providers, and we started talking and said, “Look, we know we’re not going to cure cancer, we know we’re not going to change diabetes or any kind of pure disease, but what we want to do is serve your patients and your residents with a little bit of hope and happiness and flowers, and they were all like great, come on in.”
So we were able to work with the floral industry, work with the health care industry, and get the volunteers of East Tennessee to come together and really work hard on behalf of other people.
How did it grow into a national nonprofit?
We started here with a simple idea born out of my hospital room, and then after a few years of getting the model up and running and learning how to work the logistics and really get nonprofit running in a neat and effective way, we started getting calls from all over the country, and we still do to this day. So we started expanding and replicating in Florida and Chicago and Indianapolis, out in California, and we’re continuing to replicate the model here elsewhere and really take this East Tennessee story and really affect a lot of different people across the country.
So how do you keep it going? This operation has got to cost some money right?
Although we are effective and we are very efficient in our resources, it does cost money to run any organization, any business, and we keep it very slim and trim, and we have a base of needs of a van and warehouse. We’re mostly funded by private individuals who believe in our organization, believe in our program, but we apply for grants and family foundations, and we have a lot of corporate support. But ultimately we live and die by the generosity of the community. We have a lot of people who believe that what we’re doing is a simple way to give back, a simple way to nudge the world in an effective way, and a way to invest in a little bit of happiness and encouragement in a world that is so driven by technology and bad news. Here’s an opportunity to invest in something that goes and connects with people on a human level and just says, “Have a great day, keep smiling, I hope you feel better.” Whatever it is that’s most appropriate to bring happiness to that person. We’ve been really fortunate to have people that really believe in us and continue to help us grow.
So if somebody wanted to help pitch in, what can they do and how can they do it?
If anybody wants to help be a part of Random Acts of Flowers and support it, of course we’d love your financial support to help us keep the lights on, help us keep gas in the van and keep the wheels moving, but we also need volunteers, and we need floral donors to come and be a part of it. It’s really easy to volunteer and it’s really easy to be a part of making somebody’s day a little bit better. Our whole mission goes from start to finish in about 24 to 48 hours, so if you get involved, if you invest, if you lend your time or talents, you have an immediate impact on the community and you can really see the results of the good that you’re doing in the faces of the people that we serve.
Random Acts of Flowers
3500 Workman Rd., Ste 101-A
Random Acts of Flowers redistributes floral arrangements that would otherwise be discarded to hospitals, senior care facilities, hospices, and other health care services.
How to Help
To get involved, to donate, to be a volunteer or to make Random Acts of Flowers a better organization, go to RandomActsofFlowers.org and then find the branch and get involved.
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Editor Coury Turczyn guided Knoxville's alt weekly, Metro Pulse, through two eras, first as managing editor (and later executive editor) from 1992 to 2000, then as editor-in-chief from 2007 to 2014. He's also worked as a Web editor at CNET, the erstwhile G4 cable network, and HGTV.
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