When your whole world is just a bed and a few personal items, a bouquet of lovely flowers can make your day.
Heidi Berkman discovered that fact when caring for her stepmother’s mother in her final days. She remembers how the mood indoors often matched the gloomy January weather outside. There was no sun to fill her stepmother’s condominium, and little to perk up her disposition.
But, as a 25-year corporate meeting planner for the hotel and restaurant industry, Berkman knew full well how colorful flowers could change that.
She started The Bloom Project to bring a little color into the lives of seriously ill people or those living their last days.
She had noted that the environment for ill people is often lacking in cheerful colors and beautiful objects. People spend a lot of time by themselves in a room, and a bouquet of fresh flowers can make a difference.
Berkman’s nonprofit has been giving the gift of fresh floral bouquets to hospice and palliative care patients for more than 10 years.
Flowers “provide a boost from their colors, scents and thoughtfulness,” Berkman says. “I felt that we could make use of flowers that would otherwise be tossed out in the same way leftover food is donated to those who need it, by grocery stores, wholesale food providers and restaurants.”
The Bloom Project operates because of more than 200 volunteers who provide bouquets to hospice and palliative care patients on a weekly basis.
Local grocers, wholesale flower companies and growers donate the flowers.
The Bloom Project has a facility at Teufel Nursey in Portland’s West Hills, where a team processes and prepares flowers for patient delivery.
Since 2009, The Bloom Project has delivered 219,600 bouquets using more than 100,000 volunteer hours.
The average age of volunteers is mid- to late-60s and it’s so popular there is a volunteer waiting list.
Volunteers never meet the patients, though. The bouquets are delivered to patients in their home or care facility by hospice nursing staff, clergy, social workers and other healthcare personnel.
All volunteers attend an orientation, followed by training on how to process flowers and create arrangements. Those who want to consistently work with flowers are mentored and provided additional training and coaching.
There are other volunteer opportunities, including deliveries to hospice partner offices, administrative assistance, serving on committees and other duties.
The act of delivering the flowers is helping patients feel their lives are still relevant, that “the world is going on around them, but they are still important,” she says.
The experience of caring for someone on hospice was “a bookmark in my brain,” Berkman says. “I decided to educate people because, in our culture, we do not like this subject or plan for it. When I helped care for my stepmother’s mother it was the first time I’d seen a hospice first hand and saw the role of nurses and social workers caring for terminal patients and their families.”
The experience helped her understand what was happening.
“I learned how important it is to talk about death and dying and to be informed, something our culture shies away from,” she says. “I wanted to bring some pleasure into the patient’s small world. I wanted to give back.”
People who work in hospices and palliative care facilities are so helpful during people’s final days, Berkman says.
“I recall a member of our board losing his wife,” she says. “He told me he doesn’t think he would have survived without their bereavement program.
“The healthcare people were right beside us and were so helpful for a family going through someone’s final days for the first time.”
She urges others “to be thoughtful,” because “these people are still alive and still relevant to their family and friends.”
Berkman believes that people need to become more comfortable talking about end-of-life when they are healthy and not in crisis. In that way they are open to ideas before they are not feeling well, and they can make decisions with their loved ones.
“I am focused on forgotten people,” she says.
Berkman is board president and acting executive director of The Bloom Project. She says she’s constantly fundraising, and donations of all sizes are always needed.
The project has the use of donated workspaces, supplies and equipment in which to create the beautiful hand-tied bouquets.
Companies and corporations donate funds to support project expenses and staffing.
Among the Portland partners are Bristol Hospice, The Dougy Center, Comfort Hospice and Palliative Care, Hospice Care of the Northwest, Housecall Providers, Kaiser Hospice, Legacy Hopewell House, Legacy Hospice, OHSU Palliative Care, Providence Hospice (East and West), Providence Palliative Care and Ray Hickey Hospice House in Vancouver.
The organization also operates in central Oregon, serving two different hospice organizations there. Berkman’s future plan includes extending the volunteer effort to the Oregon coast, along the Interstate-5 corridor and eventually, nationwide.
She has received inquiries about the program from interested parties on the East Coast, Canada and Ecuador. However, she doesn’t want to move too fast, ensuring the program is managed efficiently and can handle the long-term growth.
Her plan is to organize affiliates, such as the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco that grew from six to 60 beds because of its unique approach to end-of-life care.
“We believe these people deserve to be cared for and we show care by giving them flowers,” Berkman says. “There are many anecdotes from healthcare people who deliver them.”
One she relates is of a man with Alzheimer’s who no longer spoke nor seemed to be present. However, when flowers were delivered to him his eyes sparkled, perhaps remembering when he was a photographer whose specialty was flowers. n