Destenie Vital is often found “rescuing” bundles of blossoms, arrangements, and budding centerpieces after weddings, funerals, and celebrations. The roses, tulips, and daisies that would normally be tossed are packed into her car late at night, ready for delivery in the morning.
Vital is the executive director of What Cheer Flower Farm, an organization that brings happiness and comfort to those in difficult situations by donating 100 percent of the flowers it grows and “rescues” that would have likely been thrown out.
What Cheer, which has an urban farm based in the Olneyville neighborhood of Providence, emerged last week as the top winner of the second-ever Nonprofit Innovation Lab, securing $50,000 during the final pitch competition to help bring its idea to life. The Lab is a joint program of the United Way of Rhode Island and Social Enterprise Greenhouse that helps organizations to accelerate their reach and implement unique ideas that create social impact.
Q: Who does What Cheer typically serve?
Vital: We gave away nearly 90,000 flowers last year. This year, we will probably surpass that number relatively easily because the demand is just so high. We typically deliver flowers to nursing home residents, veteran homes, senior centers, food shelves (or pantries), and nonprofits that help people struggling with addiction and food insecurity.
For instance, we partner with Meals on Wheels Rhode Island. So the recipients they serve receive a bouquet of flowers with their meals. We also go to the veterans community in Bristol.
Q: How has the pandemic heightened demand?
Vital: These flowers really help brighten these people’s spaces, their day, and show that someone is thinking of them. During COVID-19, it was important for us to give to everyone we could because everyone was under stress, no matter their situation. And we do this at absolutely no cost: The flowers are completely free and we do all the delivering. So there’s no heavy lift for anyone.
Q: What was your pitch for the Nonprofit Innovation Lab?
Vital: We really just took our mission and expanded it to serve children. We wanted to reach kids that are in stressful circumstances and help to try to alleviate their anxiety with fresh flowers and some educational programming. We went through the process of planning some type of pilot program, and it was feasible for us. Even for a small organization like ours to make that move into schools with children seemed like a natural next step.
Q: Was there a reason you wanted to focus on kids specifically?
Vital: When I first got this job at What Cheer, I was still relatively new to Rhode Island. [Vital moved to Rhode Island in 2019 and joined the organization in 2020.] But something I noticed while out making deliveries to places where there are already stressed-out adults, like food pantries, was that kids were never really far away. I started to think, if parents are in stressful situations, wondering where they are going to get their next meal to feed their families, and we are delivering flowers to them to bring some type of hope and solace, then the kids must be really stressed out too.
There are so many issues in schools, even before the pandemic, and then when COVID-19 came, these issues really took on a life of their own. Teachers were stressed, kids were stressed, and I thought: We need to be here. We bring joy and happiness and this particular demographic needs that more than ever right now.
I think it was a connection we hadn’t made before.
Q: How will What Cheer Flower Farm be using the $50,000 it won in the competition?
Vital: We will be spending the money directly on the school programming, which means purchasing floral supplies, helping with operational costs for deliveries, and even purchasing flowers if needed. For example, one school has nearly 500 kids, then every kid gets a five-stem bouquet to take home. That’s over 2,000 flowers, which require buckets for transport, bouquet binding supplies, water to store the flowers, flower food to keep the flowers alive, and vessels for arrangements so the students can take them home.
Q: How could someone or an organization request a flower delivery in Rhode Island?
Vital: It’s a simple e-mail or phone call (401-830-0454).
The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Alexa Gagosz at email@example.com.