Young Man with Autism Uses Flowers to Connect with Community

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This mother-and-son business duo is using flowers to reduce the stigma surrounding people with disabilities

Rebecca Sorensen and Raimee Sorensen.

By Brooke Spach | Photography by John Michael Simpson

About a half-mile off of N.C. 54 and down a gravel road lined with towering pine trees, you’ll find Blawesome – if you know where to look. Built on a sloping hillside nestled into the woods, the 4.5-acre property isn’t where most would expect to find a flower farm, says co-founder and designer Rebecca Sorensen. But for she and her son Raimee Sorensen, 25, co-founder and primary farmer at Blawesome, the location is perfect – just a few hundred feet from their homes.

“First and foremost, we’re a farm and flower design studio, and we have an amazing product,” Rebecca says. “And secondly, we’re a local farm that is owned and operated by a young man with a disability. So when you support us, you’re not just getting a really beautiful, locally grown product, but you’re supporting a young man with a disability to have meaningful work in the world. Everything about this should feel good.”

Erin Payne and Raimee sow White Lite sunflower seeds in planting trays.

The path to operating a farm was a long one and began back in 2015 when Raimee was preparing to enter 11th grade at PACE Academy in Carrboro. The Department of Public Instruction closed the charter school just 10 days before the start of the 2015-16 school year due to attendance discrepancies.

“We started to question what a formal education meant for Raimee,” Rebecca says. “What does a [high school] diploma mean for him when 90% of adults with autism are unemployed?” She and her husband, Keith Sorensen, recalled how Ramiee enjoyed his past experience with farming while volunteering with the Eco Institute at Pickards Mountain.

“We would notice on the days that he came home from there, he had more energy, he was more centered,” she says. “Instead of stressing him out to get a piece of paper that probably wasn’t going to do him any good, [we thought], ‘Let’s find something that’s going to put him on the path to his greatest joy and independence.’ So, we started a farm.”

Ramiee and Rebecca started planting flowers in spring 2016 on a quarter-acre plot of land by their home. When an adjacent piece of land became available, the Sorensen family purchased it with the help of a North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services grant dedicated to helping people with disabilities achieve their career goals and independence.

White Lite sunflowers have pale ivory petals with a mustard yellow center.
The blue pigment is from a treatment that protects the seeds from diseases
as they germinate.

It was a full year before their first harvest. Rebecca says they decided to dedicate 100% of that yield to marketing efforts so that they could get ahead of the stigma that something made by a person with a disability would be of a lesser quality. They put together small bouquets and visited local businesses in hopes of sparking an ongoing relationship. Now, they regularly partner with Chapel Hill Country Club, Meals on Wheels Orange County, NC, The Root Cellar Cafe & Catering and B3 Coffee, a nonprofit that aims to provide fulfilling work for people with disabilities.

The barn where they create dried flower wreaths and host flowering arranging workshops (which are currently paused due to renovations) was designed and built by students in Elon University’s sustainable development program. The land also features a high tunnel, a taller version of a traditional greenhouse where they grow varieties that can’t withstand extreme winter or summer climates. A team of students also built a home for Raimee on the property, which allows him to live independently and easily get to work without having to rely on anyone for transportation. Because of this setup, the transition when the pandemic hit wasn’t much of a transition at all.

“He wasn’t sitting in his room, not having anything to do or feeling isolated,” Rebecca says. “He was working. Our business boomed during COVID-19. It was wonderful to live in a community where so many people wanted flowers, and so many people were buying flowers to give as gifts to their neighbors and relatives just to remind them, ‘Hey, there’s beauty in the world. Things are going to be OK. I’m thinking about you, and I love you.’”

Michelle passes flowers to Rebecca in the high tunnel
“Nothing prepared me for how intense and hard and wonderful it is,” says Rebecca, pictured with Michelle Morehouse in the high tunnel. “We eat, sleep and breathe farm.”

Today, Blawesome grows more than 75 varieties of annuals, perennials, herbs and shrubs year-round. The staff now includes three social care farmers who support Raimee in his daily tasks: Erin Payne, Michelle Morehouse and Hannah Haizlip, who collectively work 80 hours per week. They also offer a Community Supported Agriculture seasonal bouquet subscription service, which averages between 100 and 150 subscribers for a four- or nine-week plan. The summer season wrapped up at the end of July, with a total of 945 bouquets, 24,000 stems picked and 1,700 miles traveled for deliveries.

Blawesome’s staff also creates its signature “Good Karma” bouquets. For each one of the extra-large arrangements purchased, one is donated to an underappreciated person in Orange or Durham counties nominated by the community.

“[Raimee] gets to take the flowers out into the world, and people tell him how amazing he is,” Rebecca says. “That feels good. … There’s so many things about farming and growing flowers and being connected to the community that we have seen impact Raimee’s physical and mental health in really positive ways.”

Raimee standing among sun flowers
Raimee prunes the sunflower beds in preparation for Blawesome’s fall CSA.

This fall, the arrangements include dahlias, rudbeckias, marigolds, zinnias, mums, sunflowers and more (planted in beds named after members of the Grateful Dead!) And at press time, plans were in the works for a November event at the farm in partnership with Steel String Brewery and Beer Study.

“Nature is such an incredible artist,” Rebecca says. “Every day you’re surrounded by miracles. It’s a really tangible way to recognize your value as a human being and what you’re capable of accomplishing in the world. It’s amazing to see it present in Raimee’s life and how he carries himself a little differently now. It’s like, ‘I grow beautiful things, and I bring happiness to people in my community.’ Don’t we all want that? Don’t we all want to be the person who walks in the room that everybody’s happy to see?”

Zinnia flowers

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Brooke Spach

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