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An activity ripe with lessons and fun, ‘flower cart’ lets adult STEP students blossom

Teacher Kristin Viramontes, with STEP students, Reid Duarte, center, and Connor Carone during a flower delivery Wednesday.
College Park Elementary teacher Kristin Viramontes, left, thanks STEP students, Reid Duarte, center, and Connor Carone for a fresh flower delivery Wednesday.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)
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Twice a month, adult students from Newport-Mesa Unified School District’s Seamless Transition Enrichment Program (STEP) pile into a passenger van filled with bouquets of fresh flowers ready to be delivered to schools and facilities throughout the district.

A small team will spend the better part of their morning traversing campuses, handing off blooms artfully arranged in mason jars to those who have placed orders in advance or been gifted them by others. Visiting nearly every NMUSD campus, they typically transport more than 100 bouquets in a single day.

But what may seem like a laborious undertaking is, beneath the surface, ripe with lessons and opportunities for students to blossom, say educators who’ve seen the program in action.

David Jamshidka, from left, walks with STEP students Reid Duarte, Connor Carone and Zeke Eampietro.
David Jamshidka, from left, walks with STEP students Reid Duarte, Connor Carone and Zeke Eampietro as they deliver fresh flowers at College Elementary School Wednesday.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

On a recent morning, students made a stop at Costa Mesa’s College Park Elementary, dropping off seven bouquets in classrooms of grateful teachers.

“These are beautiful,” said second-grade teacher Kristin Viramontes, receiving the latest installment of flowers from students Reid Duarte and Connor Carone before returning a jar from the last delivery. “I love the little bitty roses — nice job!”

Aside from spreading joy among glad recipients, the “flower cart” allows students to engage in meaningful tasks and learn potential job skills, while encouraging conversations with others, says STEP teacher John Hudson.

“They’re interacting with the teachers and working on their behavior. They’re working on fine motor skills when they’re arranging and bundling the flowers,” he said. “Even washing the jars is something that could help them if they were to do dishwashing in a job.”

Zeke Eampietro, 21, rearranges bouquets Tuesday in a van used by Newport-Mesa Unified's STEP program.
Zeke Eampietro, 21, rearranges bouquets Tuesday in a van used by Newport-Mesa Unified’s STEP program to deliver flowers.
(Courtesy of Newport-Mesa Unified School District)

Hudson created the flower cart class three years earlier after seeing a similar program at Oxnard’s Channel Islands High School and reconfiguring it for STEP. Now nearly every student and teacher is involved in some way or another.

Ezekiel “Zeke” Eampietro, a 21-year-old Newport Beach resident whose favorite flower is the orchid, loves being a part of the flower cart and traveling to different campuses on delivery runs.

“It just gives me something fun to do,” he said Wednesday. “They say, ‘Thank you, I love the flowers,’ and I say, ‘You’re welcome, I love delivering them to you,’ I’d like to have a flower arrangement job.”

A STEP student displays a bouquet assembled as part of a "flower cart" activity that builds social and motor skills.
A student of Newport-Mesa Unified’s STEP program displays a bouquet assembled by students as part of a “flower cart” activity that builds social and motor skills.
(Courtesy of Newport-Mesa Unified School District)

On top of making deliveries, students walk the floor of Santa Ana wholesale florist Mayesh, selecting blooms that will stay fresh until the next delivery. Among the bundles assembled for Wednesday were delicate spray roses, mini carnations and purple button poms interspersed with fragrant eucalyptus branches.

The day before a delivery, students cut stems to length before arranging them into bouquets and placing each in a jar decorated with a string of beads often signifying a particular season or holiday. On Wednesday, more than 105 arrangements crowded the back of the van before the first blooms were dropped off at 8 a.m.

At campuses with their own special education programs, the flower cart team might simply drop off the goods, giving other students on campus a chance to make their own hyper-local deliveries, according to Hudson.

From petal to root, the endeavor is an ideal activity for those enrolled in STEP, an adult transition program that supports NMUSD students with special needs through age 22 by preparing them for jobs and the daily tasks associated with an independent lifestyle.

STEP students Quinn Peabody, left, and Parker Cope with John Hudson deliver flowers Wednesday at College Park Elementary.
STEP students Quinn Peabody, left, and Parker Cope with John Hudson deliver flowers Wednesday at College Park Elementary in Costa Mesa.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

“That’s what our site is all about — transitioning them from what they did at high school and getting them ready for the next step,” Hudson said, indicating while some students will go on to work, others will attend adult day programs. “We want to give them as many options as possible.”

But aside from the lessons it imparts, the flower cart is just a great way to spend a day, according to Parker Cope, 21, of Newport Beach.

“It’s fun. It’s easy,” said Cope, a fan of the Christmas bouquets, who added his favorite part of the experience is “when they say thank you.”

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