ENGLEWOOD — When Quilen Blackwell got a direct message from a producer on the “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” he thought it was a scam.
Southside Blooms, a farm-to-vase florist nonprofit, is a small organization on the South Side founded by Blackwell. There was no way the show had found out about his work, he said.
Once he got over “his spidey senses,” he looked up the producer on LinkedIn and was flown out for free to talk about his work on the show May 31. On an episode hosted by comedian Leslie Jones, Blackwell received a surprise check for $10,000. He jumped from his seat, doing a quick two-step before raising the jumbo check above his head and cheering.
“What you saw was a genuine reaction. They gave no inclination that they were going to give a gift, and particularly one that big,” Blackwell said. “I was shocked. It was definitely one of those moments that you remember for the rest of your life.”
Southside Blooms will use the money to build a flower farm on recently acquired land next to the Cook County Jail, Blackwell said. The funds also will allow them to hire young people in need of a job or community service project and “get them off the streets and into the flower industry,” Blackwell said.
“This opportunity is a way to have a direct relationship with the most vulnerable, highest risk youth in Chicago so that we can get them to be more interested in flowers and farming and making bouquets, boutonnieres and corsages instead of picking up guns and drugs,” Blackwell said.
While many might not consider farming and gardening as a viable solution to helping at-risk youth, “getting their hands in the dirt” is a therapeutic activity for most of the youth he works with, Blackwell said.
Harvesting flowers and weeding is an opportunity to be out in nature and clear their head. Creating bouquets and unique arrangements allows them to express their creativity, he said.
When they see the fruits of their labor, it shifts the narrative of what they can do and who they are, Blackwell said.
“It’s really hard to describe the kind of impact that this work has on a young person who’s been down and out their entire life, but it’s amazing,” Blackwell said. “For me, that’s the best part of the job — seeing these young people believe in themselves and that their lives matter and they have real value to offer people.”
There’s plenty of work ahead for Southside Blooms, Blackwell said.
Chicago Eco House, an organization founded by Blackwell and his wife, Hannah, uses sustainability through urban farming to alleviate poverty. The organization recently received $25,000 as part of the $1.5 billion omnibus bill signed by President Joe Biden to revitalize their Washington Park farm.
Funds will also help the Blackwells meet demands at Southside Blooms. Blackwell hopes to employ youth at the flower shop five days a week instead of the usual two.
And on June 18th, Southside Blooms will host its first Street Fashion Flower Show, a collaboration between youth florists and fashion students at Columbia College to create street fashion with floral arrangements woven into the design. Tickets with a suggested donation are available here.
“Most people don’t really think of flowers as being wearable that you can put on your clothing,” Blackwell said. “We’re hoping that this year will be a way to get our foot in the door, introduce floral fashion to our community and the city and take it from there.”
Chicago Eco House and Southside Blooms have become a “sanctuary for youth” that keeps them out of the streets and prevents them from becoming “another statistic,” Blackwell said.
Eventually, he hopes flowers will transform the Black community, he said.
“One day, I’ll wake up, and most vacant lots will be flower farms, most of our youth will be employed in the floral industry and the problems we experience today with poverty, guns and drugs will be for the history books,” Blackwell said. “The ultimate ambition is to become the new bedrock industry in the Black community.”
You can support Southside Blooms by signing up for their monthly $40 bouquet subscription here.
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