Most days, the backseat of Sue Buddenbaum’s white Honda Odyssey smells like a perfume shop. On this October Saturday night, Buddenbaum’s trunk is filled with velvety burgundy spray roses, silky white hydrangeas, and ivory and white dahlias.
Just hours before, the flowers served as centerpieces at a Windows on the River wedding. After the band shuts down and the last guests leave, Buddenbaum and a friend load the still-fresh centerpieces and bouquets into her car. She then transports the arrangements to her St. Clair-Superior warehouse, where the next day, volunteers will turn the flowers into new arrangements to be given to seniors living at Hough’s Eliza Bryant Village.
For the past year and a half, many of Buddenbaum’s Saturday nights have been spent just like this. In May 2018, Buddenbaum started BigHearted Blooms to give a second life to flowers. Since starting then, she and her team of volunteers have given away more than 6,000 bouquets to residents at senior centers, hospitals and nursing homes.
Buddenbaum has always believed in the transformative powers of flowers. When her mother was living in a memory care unit, Buddenbaum would sometimes come bearing a bouquet for her and fresh daisies for everyone else on the floor.
“It was an easy thing to do and it would brighten everyone’s day,” she says.
And in 2013, when Buddenbaum was diagnosed with breast cancer, she got to experience that moment of kindness from the other side. “I had a friend who gave me flowers every chemo day,” she says.
While the chemo was draining, the experience made her think about her life. “Cancer changes you,” she says. “It makes you stop and make sure that you’re spending all your time in the way you want to.”
In September 2017, as she was scrolling through her high school’s alumni newsletter, she read about a national organization called Random Acts of Flowers, which delivers recycled flowers. Something clicked. “The act was simple,” she says. “We could serve so many communities.”
Initially, Buddenbaum’s plan was to start a Cleveland subsidiary of Random Acts of Flowers along with her husband Jack. But when she called the organization, they told her they didn’t have the capacity to expand.
She was undeterred. As a marketing executive and former PTO president of Shaker Heights Schools, she knew what to do.
Last March, Buddenbaum tested out her business, buying flowers at grocery stores to deliver to patients at Beachwood Commons, where her mother had lived. Soon after, a friend connected her with a bride, who was getting married at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The bride’s florist asked if Buddenbaum was bringing a truck for the pickup.
“I hadn’t planned on it,” Buddenbaum says. Instead, she recruited more drivers. They left with seven cars-full of flowers. That’s when she knew how big this could be.
Early Sunday morning, after the Windows on the River wedding, Buddenbaum stands in BigHearted Blooms’ warehouse surveying the donations in front of her. In addition to the flowers from the wedding the day before, there are large bouquets of Easter pastel hydrangeas and bright orange Asian lilies — and a surprise pickup from the Ritz Carlton Cleveland.
Volunteers clip stems and discard faded petals. Then, they arrange bouquets in donated vases to be delivered the next day.
The following morning, Buddenbaum drops off vases at Eliza Bryant Village. She knocks on 81-year-old Evelina Toliver’s door. Toliver opens the door and gasps in surprise at the flowers.
“These were given to us, to give to you to brighten your day,” Buddenbaum says.
Toliver’s eyes teared up. She doesn’t get a ton of visitors, she says.
“Somebody loves me,” she sings softly to herself, as she closes the door.