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Olympic flower power helps troubled women bloom Add to ...

After yet another bout of trouble, Marisa Chappell's parole officer gave the young addict a choice: Three years in prison, or quit using drugs.

Ms. Chappell chose to get clean. Now, in a remarkable turnaround, the 20-year-old new mother has rebuilt her life and is going to the Olympics.

Or rather, her handiwork is going to the Olympics.

Ms. Chappell is one of a score of women, more than a few from the dark side of society, given the delicate task of assembling the captivating green bouquets that will be presented to each of the three medalists at every Olympic victory ceremony.

She can scarcely believe it.

"It's the greatest feeling in the world, just to know I'm part of something like the Olympics," an emotional Ms. Chappell said yesterday. "When I look back on what I've been through, it's something I would never ever have expected. Basically, I'm speechless."

Her recovery and subsequent key role at the Olympics, along with those of the other women hired to put the victory bouquets together, would never have happened without the guidance and big heart of 75-year-old florist June Strandberg, who has made it her life mission to heal broken lives with the soothing power of flowers.

For years, Ms. Strandberg went into a maximum security prison for women in Burnaby and taught hardened inmates the flower business. "Some of them had never really seen flowers before. They'd never seen a rose," she recalled. But when they emerged from prison, many used their new skills to start again.

After the prison closed, Ms. Strandberg kept teaching. But she branched out to include women facing other barriers, such as physical and mental challenges and rough home lives, along with some who just wanted a change.

Two years ago, Just Beginnings, her non-profit flower shop and school in Surrey, partnered with North Vancouver florist Margitta Schulz to win the bid to design and supply the 1,800 victory bouquets required for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

When she told her students the news, some of them cried, Ms. Strandberg said. "Some have never had a paycheque before. This will be the first thing they put on their résumé, that they were part of the Olympics and they did the bouquets.

"One told me that it was like getting a gold medal herself."

Tandice Barrett, 22, said she had never worked with flowers before taking Ms. Strandberg's course. "I fell off the face of the Earth for a few years. The statistics were against me. Then, to have something so pleasant as flowers really made a difference in my life. And now I'm going to be making a bouquet and seeing it go to a winner in the Olympics. I couldn't be more excited," she said with pride.

The Olympic bouquets are a soft, elegant green, with five B.C.-grown spider mums in the centre, surrounded by layers of monkey grass, aspidistra leaves and hypericum berries imported from Ecuador.

VANOC officials said they preferred to have all supplies harvested locally, but could not secure guarantees there would be enough available during the Olympic months of February and March.

The Olympic flower ladies say they will be watching closely on television to see their bouquets presented before a worldwide audience. At least one of them has a trick up her sleeve, somewhat akin to the legendary Canadian loonie implanted in the ice at Salt Lake City.

"She told me she is going to put a little ticket or something on her bouquets, so she will know that it's hers," Ms. Strandberg said.

She reminded the women of their special brand of flower power. "When you see these bouquets on the podium, you will know [they're]yours."

After demonstrating how the bouquets are to be assembled, Ms. Strandberg held one aloft, like an Olympic champion herself. "Do you feel confident you can put these together?" she asked the women.

"Yes, yes," they chorused, and set to work.

 

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