- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 27, 2012

The woman, Ramiro Penaherrera recalls, was from Texas. Probably in her 60s. He never asked her name. It was Memorial Day of last year, and Mr. Penaherrera, a flower grower from Ecuador, was handing out roses two at a time — one to place atop the headstones at Arlington National Cemetery, the other for visitors to take with them, a reminder of loved ones lost.

The woman approached. Dressed in jeans and a floppy hat, flowers bunched under his arm, Mr. Penaherrera asked if she would like to decorate a grave.

“This is really wonderful,” the woman said. “My husband sent me roses on the day he was born.”

Mr. Penaherrera was confused. How could he … “It took me a second to realize what she was saying,” he said. “She was going to put flowers on the grave of her son. That’s pretty powerful.”

A 57-year old who grew up in Washington, Mr. Penaherrera is the founder of Memorial Day Flowers, an organization that distributes donated flowers to visitors at Arlington National Cemetery and other cemeteries around the country.

On Memorial Day, more than 100 local volunteers will hand out 50,000 Ecuadorean roses and 1,000 red, white and blue flower bouquets at four Arlington cemetery locations, including Section 60, one of the burial areas for soldiers killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Last year, Mr. Penaherrera and 15 volunteers gave out 10,000 roses at the cemetery, which according to a spokesperson typically hosts about 75,000 visitors over the holiday weekend.

Some flower recipients offered spontaneous hugs. Others offered money, which the volunteers refused. A few visitors spontaneously told their stories. One man, Mr. Penaherrera recalled, simply repeated “my buddy,” over and over, visibly stricken with grief.

Anita Bemis-Dougherty, an Alexandria-based physical therapist, was at Arlington to visit the graves of her parents and uncle, all of whom served in the military. She initially thought the roses were for the families of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and approached a volunteer to offer thanks; when the volunteer said she could take a flower home, she nearly cried.

Lin Schmale, a volunteer and flower industry lobbyist, said the memory of the day still moves her to tears.

“It was so touching to see how appreciative people were of being handed a flower, just having it in their hands, and how much it really meant to them,” said Ms. Schmale, senior director of government relations for the Society of American Florists. “We want them to have something beautiful that they can put on a grave, something that hopefully makes a very sad experience feel a bit better.”

Mr. Penaherrera, who attended the Landon School in Bethesda and pursued a stand-up comedy career in California before becoming a successful organic flower farmer in Ecuador, said the idea for Memorial Day Flowers was born when he and two American friends wanted to congratulate the U.S. following last year’s killing of Osama bin Laden.

Mr. Penaherrera also wanted to honor five family members buried at Arlington: his grandfather, who served in World War I; his grandmother; and three uncles, who served in the Spanish-American War, WWI and World War II.

Despite a spat between the United States and Ecuador in April 2011 that saw the two nations expel each other’s ambassadors in the wake of an unflattering diplomatic cable leak, Mr. Penaherrera had little trouble persuading Ecuadorean growers to donate roses — in part because Mr. Penaherrera had built strong personal relationships during his three decades of working in the country; in part because the United States is a major export market for Ecuador’s floral industry. According to the Society of American Florists, more than 85 percent of the fresh flowers most commonly sold in the United States — including roses and carnations — are imported from South America, with Ecuador accounting for $123 million of imported flower value in 2009.

Though Mr. Penaherrera is both a member of and a public advocate for an Ecuadorean flower industry that has been criticized in the past by international watchdog groups and environmental advocates for harmful pesticide use and dubious labor practices, he said that the Memorial Day Flowers program is not a public relations ploy.

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