'A Gift from Heaven': Mom Gives Flowers to Widows on Valentine's Day — and It's Becoming a Movement

"Goodness and kindness inspires more goodness and kindness," Ashley Manning, of Charlotte, North Carolina, tells PEOPLE

valentine’s day widow outreach
A teary-eyed Ashley Manning hugging Cleauary Jackson, who nominated her friend — also a widower — to receive flowers in 2021. Photo: Paige Jones

A North Carolina woman never expected that her pandemic hobby would turn into a movement — but that's exactly what's happening after the self-taught florist began delivering bouquets to widows on Valentine's Day last year.

"I started working with flowers in COVID as a little break from the kids," Ashley Manning — a 39-year-old, married mother of four — tells PEOPLE. "I thought that if I made enough money to pay for a sitter while I worked, it would be worth it."

An Idea Comes to Life

Within the span of just a few months, she had formed her own company, Pretty Things by A.E. Manning, and converted two rooms in her house into a florist's studio. As friends bought up her creations, she felt the urge to pay it forward and do something special for her son's teacher, Kathy Evans, who'd lost her husband, Bob Gore, to cancer in 2015, when Evans was just 53 years old.

"I remembered at the beginning of the year when my son was 4, she'd told me she lost her husband," Manning recalls. "I could see in her eyes she was so sad."

valentine’s day widow outreach
Ashley Manning. Hayley Cauthran

Feeling Loved on the "Hardest Holiday"

When Valentine's Day 2021 rolled around, Manning surprised Evans with a beautiful bouquet. The gesture warmed Evans' heart on what is "the hardest holiday for me," says Evans. That's because Valentine's Day inevitably takes her back to the final days she had with her husband in 2015.

"My husband died on March 3, and I didn't think I was going to get a Valentine that year because he was so sick, but he ended up giving me a beautiful card and pendant," she explains.

"When you're 53 and you've been with someone for 33 years, your future goes black," Evans adds. "We had plans to travel, take dance lessons, retire… he was my rock. It was hard being that young and losing him, so to receive flowers on Valentine's day was so special."

"Afterwards she wrote me a note about how much the flowers had meant to her," says Manning. "It just sparked the idea to reach out to more widows."

valentine’s day widow outreach
Ashley Manning's flower operation in her driveway for Valentine's Day 2021. Brandon Manning

Going Big

Manning shared her concept on Instagram and asked people to provide names of other widows in their area of Charlotte, North Carolina.

The community nominated more than 120 widows, and Manning soon needed help to level up. While a team of volunteers helped her put the bouquets together, several local businesses donated wine, jewelry and more items to fill gift bags to accompany the flowers.

"It's our mission to take care of each other," says Manning, whose project has garnered local news coverage. "And on that day, those women need to be taken care of."

Setting a Sweet Example

Manning says she's done missionary work in several countries, but the Valentine's Day Widow Outreach — as she's named it — has meant more to her than anything else.

"I took my three oldest kids to deliver a bouquet to our elderly neighbor down the street last year," she says. "We really didn't interact with her much, but we knew she was a widow. When she opened the door and saw the flowers, she said, 'I think I'm gonna cry.'"

The woman said that it was the nicest thing anyone had ever done for her.

"As we were walking away, my first-grader Mia said, 'Mom, is this why you do stuff like this? Because of how you feel good?'" says Manning. "She was really happy, and now I feel really good. My daughter realized that day the real gift is the actual joy you get from each other."

Her project has since more than doubled in size. This year, more than 350 women will receive the gifts, and 150 volunteers will spend the weekend transforming more than $12,000 worth of flowers into bouquets — all to be delivered on Valentine's Day.

valentine’s day widow outreach
Ashley Manning's flower operation in her driveway for Valentine's Day 2021. Brandon Manning

A Touching Response

Though most of the deliveries are anonymous, Manning always includes a business card that lists her address. So far she's received a few thank-you notes that have made her emotional.

"Valentine's Day had not been my favorite day," one recipient wrote. "I especially miss my husband, and it was lovely to be celebrated by your team. Your sweetness felt as if it were a gift from heaven, from my husband Joe. To get the flowers felt like it came from him."

Meanwhile, Evans is thrilled that other widows are feeling the love she felt last year.

"Knowing that there are other ladies out there who spend their Valentine's Day alone, it makes me feel good to know that there is someone like Ashley Manning willing to give her time and her talent and money to touch other people," she says. "It's amazing. It's just such a touching idea."

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Taking the Project Nationwide

As donations continue to pour in, Manning says she's been overwhelmed by the massive response.

"Last week several friends shared it [on social media], and it started to snowball," she says.

She hopes the project will spread across the nation. To that end, she's working to form an official non-profit and create a template that others can use in their own communities.

"I think goodness and kindness inspires more goodness and kindness," Manning says, "and that's a really good thing."

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