Robin Penaherrera is proud of his grandfather and uncles who served in the United States military. Five of his family members are buried at Arlington Cemetery. No military service of his own, Penaherrera is in the floral business, he still plays a vital part with America’s service men and women. He and close friend, Kevin Clifford of the Delaware Valley Floral Group, teamed up three years ago to organize a non-profit named The Memorial Day Flowers Foundation. Each Memorial Day, the Foundation collects and donates roses to distribute to family members visiting military cemeteries across the United States. The two men are dedicated to honoring those who served and the families who have lost loved ones.
They started the project with a small group of volunteers, and the event has grown from passing out flowers at 12 cemeteries to 200. In 2013, more than 3,000 volunteers armed with dozens of roses turned up on Memorial Day to participate. Clifford explains the motivation behind Memorial Roses: “The root of this whole thing is recognizing the sacrifice and making people feel that someone actually cares. It’s explaining things that have happened and the price people have paid for it.”
This year Memorial Roses joined forces with the National Capital Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America. On Memorial Day, local Boy Scouts will visit Arlington Cemetery to interview families at the gravesites. The goal is to expose the boys to real life stories of war and loss.
The two men share some unforgettable moments they’ve had while distributing roses at Arlington Cemetery on Memorial Day. “In 2012, a service woman walked up to me in full uniform,” recalls Clifford choking up. “She was very emotional and asked for three yellow roses. I said, ‘Sure, no problem, take some extras to remember the day.’ Then she looked at me and said, ‘I only need three. There were four of us that day.’”
The most poignant moments occur in Section 60, where service members from the current conflicts are buried. Clifford describes how two little girls came back several times asking for roses. Their father questioned whether it was OK. Clifford encouraged them: “I told them to take as many as they wanted. Then one little girl looked up at me and said, ‘We want all these sites to look like our mom’s.’” Clifford pauses, “We’ve given out 300,000 roses so far. Imagine how many stories are out there.”
“I’ve been in the flower business 25 years,” Penaherrera adds with wonder in his voice, “and this, by far, is the coolest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”