"A lot of times, they'll cry because they're so happy that we came to see them," Cynthia Chouteau tells PEOPLE
After her husband, Clayton, died of a heart attack 13 years ago, Valentine’s Day became a day of melancholy for Betty Bradley of Independence, Missouri. There were no more chocolate-covered cherries, no more red roses, no romantic cards. “Every holiday just became another reminder that he was gone,” Betty, now 76, tells PEOPLE.
Then five years ago, all of that changed when Jimmy Chouteau showed up on Betty’s doorstep on Valentine’s Day with a single red rose and a card covered with colorful hearts, drawn by one of his children.
“It made the biggest difference in my life to know that somebody cared,” Betty says. “Jimmy and his entire family have brought so much joy. I can’t say enough good things about them.”
Jimmy, 37, a life insurance agent from Lee’s Summit, Missouri, and his wife, Cynthia, 34, a homemaker, are the founders of Widow Wednesday, a nonprofit charity that assists widows and widowers in the Kansas City area with household repairs, painting and yard work, along with special deliveries of flowers, cards and care packages on holidays.
“I’d noticed that a lot of my elderly clients seemed lost about what to do about repairs after their spouses died,” Jimmy tells PEOPLE, “so I started taking Wednesdays off to do handyman jobs for them. From there, the idea just grew. Now we have more than 100 volunteers to do everything from ripping up carpet, changing light bulbs and raking leaves to deliver a hot, home-cooked meal.”
On Valentine’s Day, the Chouteaus and their children, Ellie, 11, Ethan, 9, and Emery, 7 (they also have a 1-month-old baby, Evelyn), will help deliver long-stemmed red roses, hugs and cards made at the kids’ homeschooling co-op to more than 200 widows and a few widowers, too.
“I like getting dressed up on Valentine’s Day to go out and give the ladies’ roses,” says Ethan. His brother, Emery, adds: “I always feel happy when I visit the widows. You just feel glad that you get to help them.”
“My kids have about 50 extra grandmas because of all the widows we’re now close to,” Cynthia tells PEOPLE. “This has become a ministry for us – we don’t want anyone to feel forgotten. Women tell us all the time that about a month or two after their husbands pass away, everybody goes back to their lives and they don’t hear from or see anyone after that.”
“It’s important, at a time when they’re hurting, to bring them a hug and a personal message,” she adds. “A lot of times, they’ll cry because they’re so happy that we came to see them.”
Jennifer Freed, a grief counselor whose husband, Bill, died suddenly at age 36 eight years ago, says that the Chouteaus made a huge difference in her son Joshua’s life at a time when he most needed a father figure in his life.
“They’re like angels to our family,” Freed, 42, who lives in Kansas City, tells PEOPLE. “My son was three when Bill died. Jimmy has taken special care to include my son in sporting events, camping and other guy activities. It’s impossible to put into words how much he and Cynthia mean to us. Their friendship is priceless.”
Besides Valentine’s Day visits, the Chouteaus also help organize caroling and gift basket deliveries every Christmas and host a “Widow’s Day” banquet every summer, complete with instructors from a local dance studio to teach the women – and a few men – some new moves.
“We’d love nothing more than to start a movement and get other other people across the country to adopt a widow or widower in their lives,” says Jimmy. “We all know them, so why not reach out to them? It takes such little effort, but the rewards are so great. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve driven away from helping someone with tears streaming down my face. There’s no place I’d rather be every Wednesday than helping them out.”