by Todd Cohen
photographs by Jillian Clark
Using flowers to help lift the spirits of people living with sickness, terminal illness, poverty, or a disability is the mission of The Flower Shuttle, an all-volunteer nonprofit in Raleigh.
With hundreds of donated flowers – given by local florists, grocery stores, plant wholesalers, just-married brides, churches, gala hosts, and others – the group’s volunteers gather at the Raleigh Moravian Church most Tuesday mornings to create fresh arrangements for people in need.
Anywhere from 75 to 125 Flower Shuttle volunteers work every week not only to create new bouquets, but to pick up donated flowers and to deliver fresh arrangements to more than 20 retirement homes, nursing homes, hospitals, hospices, dialysis centers, and chemotherapy centers.
It’s a major operation, as the bustling action on a Tuesday morning attests. “The room is filled with joy and happiness,” says Katherine McVey, a retired physical therapist and president of The Flower Shuttle. “It gives you a real sense of community… You’re part of this real community that shares love and joy with others.”
The Flower Shuttle was founded in 2006 by Raleigh artist Kathy Reece, who was inspired by an article she had read in O, The Oprah Magazine about a flower-recycling center. Since then, The Flower Shuttle has distributed about 130,000 arrangements – as many as 400 a month.
McVey, 59, a native of Rochester, N.Y., retired last year after 36 years as a physical therapist. She and her husband, Jim McVey, a director of contract performance for GlaxoSmithKline, live in North Raleigh. Their son, Alex, is a mechanical engineer in Charlotte for Fluor, a construction company.
How does The Flower Shuttle work?
McVey: Everything is volunteer. We are a well-greased machine. We have an administrative team. Somebody is responsible for pickup. For each vendor, there’s a primary, a backup, and another backup to pick up flowers. The same with delivery. Expenses are pretty minimal. We buy the foam we put the flowers in. We try to get vases and mugs donated. We have a bin behind the church. People drive by and drop off the vases and mugs. The mugs and vases stay in a locked shed behind the church. We arrange flowers in the activity room in the church. You can go online and ask to have flowers delivered to your establishment. A chemotherapy center might call for 20 arrangements for the reception center and spread around where the chemo takes place. They get them every week. We have more than 20 regular customers.
Where else do you get the flowers?
Some churches donate their Sunday flowers. WakeMed usually has huge fundraisers and donates their flowers. And people donate flowers from weddings, funerals, and special events. People used to throw those flowers away.
What’s the activity room like when volunteers create the arrangements?
People are at long tables talking to each other. Everybody is so supportive and loving. It’s a beehive of activity. Grandmothers bring their grandkids. There are different levels of beauty in arrangements. We have a lot of talented ex-florists. And we have Flowers 101 – basic training. We walk around and say, “This is what it should look like.”
Do you do any fundraising?
At the end of the year, we send out mailings (to request donations) to church members, all the people registered with The Flower Shuttle, and businesses that donate flowers. And we bake goods and get baskets and give them to the flower donors.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a physical therapist from the time I was in eighth grade. My great aunt was in a wheelchair with rheumatoid arthritis and had had a total hip replacement. While I was visiting her, she said, “You need to come to therapy with me.” I did home health, worked in hospitals, and ran a rehab hospital. Every day I went to work, I absolutely loved my job.
Who are your parents?
My dad is Tom Hughes. He’s 89. He worked for Xerox as a tech rep manager for copying machines. My mom is Judie Hughes. She’s 87. She was a stay-at-home mom until I was in middle school. Then she worked at an interior decorating company, Bayles Furniture.
What did you learn from them?
Love, respect, honor, hard work. They were role models, very in love with each other. They still live in the house I grew up in. My dad takes care of my mom, who has dementia. I try to give him a break whenever I can. He mows the lawn, cooks, does the laundry, does everything.
What is a volunteer experience that meant a lot to you?
When I had my son, I did home-health physical therapy in Raleigh. The inner city was part of my territory. It gave me an opportunity to mesh my spirituality and my work. In addition to therapy, I did grocery shopping and laundry for patients. And now we feed the homeless downtown – my husband and I and a group from our church, Church of God in Cary. We make food and take it downtown through Bread of Life. We do it one Saturday every other month.
What charities are nearest to your heart?
Habitat for Humanity. I can think of nothing worse than being homeless. I volunteer at Dress for Success. We help impoverished women get employed. You can do image coaching or career coaching. Also Raleigh Rescue Mission, and the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina. It’s terrible to be hungry.
Who are your heroes?
(Flower Shuttle founder) Kathy Reece. She looks out for other people. She’s the epitome of who a person should be.
What motivates you?
My goal in life is to be a better person, every single day. Part of that is stopping being selfish and looking to see how I can help others. That’s the essence of life.
What do you like about Raleigh?
The people. The weather. All the culture. It’s not too big or too small. It’s really progressive. There’s something going on all the time. There’s plenty to do and give back to. There’s so much, yet it’s not a huge, huge city.
What inspires you?
Knowing I can make a difference in a positive way in other people’s lives, day after day.
What does philanthropy mean to you?
Taking my eyes off of me and putting them on a common cause, something bigger than myself.
What do you do for fun?
We hike. We camp. I use the greenway three to four times a week. I bike about 13 to 14 miles each day. It’s a great way to start the day. I also cook and bake, scrapbook, and make cards. I’m into crafty things, like flower arrangements with dry flowers, wreaths.
What is your philosophy of life?
Love yourself, love others, have fun, and don’t take things too seriously.