By Bradley Pettit
Christians say the white lily symbolizes the radiance of the youthful soul. For florists, the delicate and elegant lily represents the lives of children taken too soon. For every season of life, God gives us flowers–especially for the darkest seasons that try our souls.
When news began coming out of Uvalde, I instinctively guarded my heart and pushed it out of my mind. As a teacher married to a teacher, with two of our kids in elementary school and another beginning his senior year, school shootings are something we NEVER want to think about in our house.
Before I taught, I was stationed at Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio, so I know the Uvalde community very well. Nonetheless, when I began hearing about what happened there, I didn’t want to allow into my mind the full weight of the awful tragedy. With graduation and end-of-year duties to wrap up at school, I gladly sought refuge in my job as a teacher and my role as a parent whose kids were counting the seconds until summer vacation. But try as I might, I couldn’t keep Uvalde out of my mind or my heart.
I wish there was something I could do to help, I thought.
Crane is a community not unlike Uvalde. It’s smaller, but similar. Crane schools aren’t much different than Uvalde’s either. Teaching is teaching, and after teaching at three different schools, in three different cities, I can say with authority that teachers are teachers and kids are kids as well. Educators have a bond not unlike that which I experienced in the military. It’s a family-type bond. When one teacher runs into another, we can strike up a conversation as if we were old friends. And as teachers, we love our students with all of our hearts. So, when something like this happens to one school, it happens to all schools. When it happens to one teacher or one student, it happens to all teachers and all students.
One night, as I did my best to ignore the grim news pouring out of the television, my wife, Jessica Pettit, asked, “Did you see what my Dad posted?”
“No,” I replied. “What is it about?”
“Uvalde,” she said.
I sighed, not ready to pull my head out of the sand, but I did anyway and pulled up the post. I read it, and then called my mother-in-law, Brenda Burks.
“I read that you’re part of something that’s going to help Uvalde,” I said. “Tell me more about it.”
Brenda told me that she, along with the owner of The Little Flower Shop in Crane, Latrina Little, and assistant florist, Christy Digiacamo, had been brainstorming.
“We got to talking,” Burks said, “and discussed how hectic it must be for the ladies at The Flower Patch in Uvalde. We talked about it, and prayed about it, and we decided that we needed to do something to help those ladies out.”
Little explained what the trio had done already, and I was taken aback by the love and thoughtfulness of these extraordinary ladies.
“We know how crazy things get when we have a single funeral in Crane,” Little said. “It was painfully obvious that those ladies in Uvalde were going to be swamped with requests for flowers to accommodate their grieving community, and so we decided we would do what we could.”
What the ladies did, initially, was contact their wholesalers in Lubbock. Lubbock Wholesale Florists sprang into action, donating loads of flowers to the ladies in Crane to send over to Uvalde. When word of this got out, donations to fund the effort began coming in, eventually totalling north of four thousand dollars. In the blink of an eye, the ladies had accomplished a major portion of what they had planned on doing to help the people of Uvalde. They had many boxes of flowers headed towards Crane, but, as Little explained, this created a problem of its own.
“The issue was that we needed a cool place to store the flowers while we hunted for a way to get them to Uvalde.”
And this is where the family bond of educators comes into play.
By this time, Crane Independent School District had already wrapped up the school year. With no more mouths to feed, Director of Food Services for CISD, Renee Means, offered up the empty walk-in refrigerators of Crane Elementary School’s cafeteria to store the incoming flowers.
“This was a small part of what Crane ISD could do to help,” Means said. “We are just glad our school district could help another school district in their time of need. Thank God for Brenda and Latrina for sharing their God-given talents.”
The God-given talents Means referred to was the second phase of the ladies’ plan to help in Uvalde.
“We knew they’d need designers for the many flower arrangements,” said Little. “So, we called Kelly Baker at The Flower Patch in Uvalde and asked if she could use us. She said ‘yes,’ and the next thing you know we were booking a hotel.”
But the ladies quickly discovered that they had yet another dilemma. How would they get that many flowers to Uvalde? Well, just then, another good Samaritan stepped in. His name is Jesse Torres, and as an employee of Flower Depot Distribution, he offered to use his refrigerated truck to deliver the flowers all the way to Uvalde, free of charge.
Things kept falling into place, and soon the good ladies from The Little Flower Shop of Crane were heading South to assist the good ladies at The Flower Patch of Uvalde.
Amazed by these beautiful women and what they were doing, the thought came back into my head.
What can I do to help?
My wife had the same question, and so we prayed about it. Feeling that we as teachers needed to do something, we asked the ladies if they could use two more. And just like that, we were also heading towards the border town of Uvalde.
The whole way there, we dreaded it. We wanted to help, but we also didn’t want to be in the way. Additionally, we couldn’t begin to imagine the grief that this tiny community was going through. That would soon change, however, as we would learn of it first-hand.
Lord, please use us how you see fit, we prayed.
We arrived in Uvalde on Wednesday, June 1, to find the Crane ladies from The Little Flower Shop hard at work designing casket pieces, floral easels, and various other arrangements to meet the needs of the grieving community. Working side-by-side with the regular employees of The Flower Patch, as well as volunteers from other flower shops around Texas, the ladies were creating beautiful floral arrangements by the dozens.
“What can we do?” my wife asked.
“Use us where you need us,” I added.
My wife jumped in, helping the ladies with the flowers, and I, being thoroughly limited in terms of floral design, linked up with Tristan Ligosky, who is in charge of delivering flowers for The Flower Patch. So, I hopped into the delivery van, and we headed out to bring flowers to the hurting people of Uvalde.
As we drove, Ligosky pointed out the trees growing in the middle of the roads all over town.
“Most people find it amusing that we have trees growing right in the middle of the street. Before this whole thing, it was kind of what we were known for.”
As I pondered the trees, I looked out the window and suddenly realized that we were parked in front of Hillcrest Funeral Home, one of only two funeral homes servicing the Uvalde area.
We were there to deliver flowers for one of the many services happening that day. In the back of the van were many beautiful arrangements, with cards bearing the names of many of the small children and brave teachers who had died at Robb Elementary School. When I looked at the names of those sweet children and teachers, my stomach felt sick. Truth be told, I was in a daze for most of the time we were down there. It was such a strange feeling to be caught up in a whirlwind of human grief.
Ligosky and I grabbed some of the arrangements and began walking through the doors of the funeral home. After we dropped off the flowers and began heading back to the van, I realized where we were. There, not fifty yards from the funeral home, on the other side of the street, sat Robb Elementary School. The building bore broken windows and broken dreams; it was all blackened brick and cops and heartache marked off with police tape. I could see my own school superimposed onto Robb Elementary. I could see the faces of the students I taught on the makeshift memorials at the school building next door, where the grounds were draped with mounds of flowers and piles of toys five-feet-high. In that moment, it really sank in that this brand of evil can happen anywhere; this was a dreadful and awful realization.
As we drove an empty van back towards The Flower Patch, I noticed where the monster had wrecked his truck before entering Robb Elementary. It took every ounce of Christian charity I could muster to not let hatred for this person poison my soul. That was the only time I gave the monster any thought. The rest of my mind, and my heart, was with the angels who had died.
“You know,” said Ligosky, “that people were sending flowers the day after this happened. I had to deliver flowers to parents who hadn’t yet had time to deal. One of them was gathering up their kids’ toys and putting them in bags. I’ll never forget that.”
When Ligosky and I returned to the flower shop, the ladies had produced more arrangements for us to deliver. These deliveries would be within walking distance, as they were going to Rushing-Estes-Knowles Mortuary. This funeral home is situated as close to The Flower Patch as Hillcrest is to Robb Elementary School. There, the funeral of Jackie Cazares, one of the nine-year-old victims, was set to begin within the next hour. So, as had been the case since we arrived, one funeral service was set to follow another.
My heart broke to see one grieving family leaving the funeral home, only to be replaced by another poor family walking in. And knowing that another family would soon replace this one, and yet another one after that going on for the next two weeks, destroyed me emotionally.
Cars lined the streets to the funeral home, winding for blocks and blocks. Grief-stricken people dressed in black, their faces shrink-wrapped in tears, filed into the funeral home. Ligosky and I, flowers in hand, mixed in with the crowd going into the building. I did my best to avoid eye contact with melancholy faces. I didn’t want to experience any more residual grief than I already had. I followed Ligosky, where we were met by staff members who told us to follow them. I watched my feet moving across the floor in front of me until we finally arrived at where these flowers were to be delivered.
Much as earlier, when I had looked up and saw Robb Elementary so close to the funeral home, I was this time dismayed to see another tragic site. There before me, in this funeral home, was one of the angels from the school. It took me a moment to register this. And before I could help myself, I saw my daughter lying there. I saw my sons lying there. I know that I will never forget the name or face of Jackie Cazares, a nine-year-old angel as delicate as the petals of the white lily, taken much too soon. I laid a heart made of roses on a table near the casket and said a prayer before shuffling out of the room just beginning to fill up with grieving friends and family.
Lord, bless this child. Lord, bless this grieving family, too.
I’m sure the look on my face was easy to read, and once we exited the funeral home, Ligosky told me matter-of-factly, “Nobody ever said delivering flowers was easy.”
This is certainly true.
For the remainder of our time at The Flower Patch, my wife and I marveled at how well the ladies did their jobs. Burks and Little produced one beautiful arrangement after another, organizing flowers with an expert hand, while Digiacamo and my wife assisted them.
I watched as my mother-in-law designed one particular arrangement ordered by Gov. Greg Abbott, and then I turned my gaze across the room to see Little designing a beautiful floral easel resembling a butterfly for Makenna Elrod, one of the sweet angels who had an earthly penchant for butterflies. Her service was set for the following day. Everywhere one looked, there was grief and beauty. Heartache and heartwarming acts of kindness.
Something I had noticed while visiting Uvalde – apart from the trees in the middle of the road – was just how many other communities had shown up to lend a hand. We ran into people from multiple cities –multiple states – all there to assist the broken community. And just like the Crane ladies assisting at The Flower Patch, volunteers from the world over had descended on Uvalde to grieve with and assist those suffering in the wake of this awful tragedy.
When I got a chance to sit down with Kelly Baker, the owner of The Flower Patch, she explained to me what all the extra help meant for her flower shop specifically, and her community more broadly.
“We’ve had people calling from all over, asking how they can help,” she said. “I got calls and texts from North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and multiple places from all over Texas — all within the first day.”
Baker is a kind woman – approachable, but with a mind for business. She’s extremely organized, and even in the chaotic situation in which I found her, the business was running exceedingly well.
“There’s been such an outpouring of love. These women just really wanted to help, and it’s been amazing.”
While Baker appreciates the help people from outside of Uvalde have offered, she’s gone above and beyond herself to accommodate her community.
“I called my suppliers. I told them, ‘Look, we are not going to charge for anything. We are going to work on a volunteer basis. Absolutely, 100-percent free.’ So, they started shipping stuff from the farms directly to me. In fact, most of the supplies coming in have been donated. Just this week, we got a huge donation from the Bill Doran Company, a wholesaler out of San Antonio. They sent me 300 boxes of flowers!”
As we discussed the outpouring of support, of course business still needed to be done. The phone was ringing nonstop, and people were coming in and out to talk with her about orders. When things settled down, I asked her about the difference between a regular day at The Flower Patch, and the past few days since the tragedy.
“There’s only three of us on a normal day. Typically, we probably do 10-15 floral arrangements. This has definitely been ten times that. Most of these arrangements take between 30 to 45 minutes to make. With multiple services happening simultaneously, we are making hundreds of them. That’s why this extra help has been so valuable.”
When I looked around and saw the abundance of flowers, but also noticed how fast they were going out, I asked Baker if she was able to envision the day when things would go back to normal.
“The Floral Supply Syndicate has actually offered to replenish my supplies after this is all over. Again, it is overwhelming how everyone has stepped up.”
I couldn’t end my interview without asking Baker if she attended Robb Elementary.
“No,” she said. “But my mother was the special ed teacher there, and my sister was the music teacher there for years. So I know the school very well, and my heart breaks for the kids and teachers there.”
As our volunteer time drew to a close, my wife and I said goodbye to the dear friends we had made over the past two days. We said goodbye to the Crane ladies who were staying behind to continue working for as long as they could.
Although the trip was gut-wrenching and sad, it was amazing to witness just how much people can come together in trying times such as these. It was heart-warming to watch the ladies design the flowers according to the earthly loves and personalities of the victims. It was touching to be a part of the delivery process, helping to get the work of these ladies to the grieving survivors. It did my heart and soul good to learn how flowers are sometimes the only good and true thing we can say when evil comes to town.
God bless the people of Uvalde.
Bradley Petit is a freshman English teacher at Crane High School. His wife, Jessica, teaches Algebra II.