Kay Decaro of Charlotte, North Carolina, has been a widow for 24 years. So when a big bouquet of flowers showed up on her porch last Valentine's Day, she was taken aback.
The surprise delivery was from Decaro's daughter, by way of Ashley Manning, a mom of four working to honor widows in her community.
"We (widows) are kind of like a forgotten element sometimes," Decaro, 70, told TODAY Parents. "It was just such a beautiful thought and it made me feel so special that somebody would take the time to make something so beautiful with flowers and pass it on to widows."
Manning, 39, told TODAY she has loved plants and flowers since she was a little girl. A former pharmaceutical rep, she became a stay-at-home mom after her first child, now 10, was born.
"I would just make flower arrangements for my friends for their birthdays and put things together," Manning said.
In November 2020, her hobby grew into a business — Pretty Things by A.E. Manning — after doing local pop-up shopping events in the Charlotte area.
Ahead of Valentine's Day 2021, Manning asked her Instagram following a simple question: How are we going to take care of the women in our community who aren’t going to get flowers?
"Both of my grandmothers were widows. My mom’s mom had 12 children and my dad’s had 8. I never met my grandfathers and they never remarried," Manning explained. "My son’s preschool teacher had (also) lost her husband. When I heard that, my heart just broke."
When Manning put out the word that she would be creating bouquets for widows, she began receiving nominations from all over town.
"I just needed to know their name and address," Manning said, adding that she would save their information in her phone with very little organization. "I was just a one person show last year."
By the time Valentine's Day arrived, Manning had organized 121 bouquets for widows with the help of 50 volunteers.
"The whole initiative is community based," Manning said of the project and funds used to purchase flowers, vases, and other supplies. "All of the money is raised within our community."
Manning said some people choose to have the flowers delivered anonymously, while others want to deliver themselves.
"They want to hug the person they give it to," she said.
As she prepared to take on the "2022 Valentine's Day Widow Project," Manning ran into a roadblock.
"In November, my 6-year-old hit me in the eye. He tore my retina," Manning explained. "I had a laser surgery and a week later, it was hemorrhaging, because of the trauma. A month after that on December 20, I was watching football and my retina detached. They call it a curtain, but everything went black."
The next day, Manning had emergency surgery.
"I had a fully detached retina and I was in my bed for 6 weeks," she said.
The busy mom, confined to her bed in a dark room with vision loss in one eye, felt defeated.
"I didn't know if I could do (the project) this year," she told TODAY. "I was sitting there and I made a Reel on Instagram. I thought, 'If we are going to do this, we have to get started now.' And by the grace of God, this is going to happen."
This year, Manning is hoping to surprise 400 widows in North Carolina, who have all been nominated by their friends or family.
With the help of donations from more than ten local businesses —including jewelry company Twine and Twig and wine retailer Winestore— as well as monetary commitments from people across North Carolina, this year's gift baskets will go beyond flowers.
"Everything is delivered on Valentine’s Day," Manning said, adding there are around 150 drivers assisting this year. "We’re going to have around 13,000 stems of flowers that have been arriving since Monday."
On Saturday, more than 200 volunteers will arrive to help assemble the gifts. One of them is Decaro.
"You think you have another 20 (or) 40 years with your spouse and all of a sudden, all the happiness was gone. I was married to him for 20 years and it wasn’t long enough," Decaro said. "The delivery touched my heart so deeply last year, that this year I wanted to be a volunteer. My husband would bring me flowers randomly off and on. It’s been years, but it’s still so beautiful."