In 2005, Sarah McClarey woke up in a domestic violence shelter on Valentine’s Day and decided that she needed to feel some beauty and love.
Determined to celebrate her freedom after being beaten and verbally abused for four years, the Chicago mom of two went out to a flower shop after breakfast and bought herself a dozen long-stemmed red roses.
“I was so happy to bring this beautiful living thing into the shelter because those flowers represented life and hope,” McClarey, 34, tells PEOPLE. “I was in a better place — good things were ahead of me. He couldn’t beat me any more or tell me that I was nothing. On that Valentine’s Day, I felt power and optimism for the first time in years.”
In the years afterward, as she resettled her children into an apartment in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, and pursued a career in information technology, McClarey continued to buy herself roses every Valentine’s Day.
Then in 2010, remembering how those bright and fragrant flowers had brightened her life and her small room at the shelter, she decided, “Why not pass that good feeling forward?”
With help from a few friends, McClarey scraped together enough money to buy 10 dozen pink and red Valentine’s Day bouquets and deliver them to women staying at a WINGS domestic violence safe house in the Chicago suburbs.
“I wanted to buy roses, but because it was Valentine’s Day, everyone was out and I had to mix the few roses I’d found with carnations,” she recalls. “But it didn’t matter. I wrapped them in ribbon, and when I walked in and gave them to the women, they started crying. ‘You have no idea what this means,’ one told me. ‘I thought that this would be the worst day ever, and you made it the best ever.'”
Since then, McClarey and several volunteers have delivered roses every Valentine’s Day to five domestic violence shelters in the Chicago area through Operation Shelter Cupid, a program operated with help from WINGS. This year, McClarey estimates that she’ll deliver more than 200 dozen roses, most of them paid for with private donations.
“Nobody has a better Valentine’s Day than I do,” McClarey, a mom to two teenagers, Jonah, 14, and K.J., 13, tells PEOPLE. “Delivering those roses is the most enjoyable thing I do all year. Seeing the smiles on all of those faces — it’s the highest feeling ever.”
McClarey’s bouquets are life-changing for shelter residents who haven’t seen much kindness, says Rebecca Darr, CEO of WINGS Program, Inc.
“Fleeing an abusive relationship with little children is a frightening experience,” she says, “and the greatest gift (residents) can receive is the unconditional love from another survivor. Many of these women have never received flowers before. To get roses on Valentine’s Day from strangers brings them to tears. Operation Shelter Cupid is Sarah’s great act of unconditional love. Its’ ripple reaches far in healing the wounds created by abuse.”
Lucy, a mother of a young son, didn’t trust anyone after she fled for her life one night in 2009 and ended up at a WINGS shelter for six months. On Valentine’s Day, she says, the last thing on her mind was hearts and flowers.
“I felt I’d hit bottom — I was afraid to go outside, afraid that my son’s father would find me,” she tells PEOPLE. “After what I’d been through, I was afraid of everyone. But then Sarah showed up on Valentine’s Day and handed my son a bouquet of flowers. When he handed them to me, I started to cry. It was like a bright light was turned on for me again after a time of darkness. Sarah understood that. Giving me those flowers, she made me feel like I could make a new start.”
Because McClarey knows the feeling of low self worth that many abused women experience, “I’m able to communicate, perhaps, in ways that others can’t,” she says.
“When you’re in an abusive environment, holidays are always painful and sad times,” says McClarey. “Nothing feels better to me than loving people who are in that situation and letting them know they don’t have to go through it alone. I want them to feel like Valentine’s Day is every day. That they’ll always feel loved and cared for.”
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