Christy Brown

The power of flowers

Teaching floral arts to current and former inmates

June Strandberg claims she has retired from teaching the art of flower arranging.

The Langley resident is, after all, 79 and a great-grandmother.

But during an hour-long conversation with The Times, Strandberg lets slip that she will be giving a course at a Langley seniors’ centre.

She also mentions that she recently taught some people in a rehab program in Surrey.

It went well, she says, and she has been lobbying the program administrators to leave some space for flower arrangements in their open-to-the-public store.

But technically, Strandberg quit in 2011 when she retired from Just Beginnings, the non-profit Surrey flower shop that won international recognition for its work with disadvantaged women when it won the contract for the 2010 Olympics.

That was after she created and ran the first-ever prison floral training program in North America.

Now she has written a book about her experiences.

“Behind Seven Locked Doors” is the account of an extremely nice and very refined woman who ended up teaching her craft to convicted criminals.

It all started more than 20 years ago when Strandberg, a third-generation florist, was running two retail stores and operating a trade school for florists.

A parole officer asked if she would be willing to train two women who had recently been released from prison.

She was.

That experience later led her to phone the warden at Burnaby’s Oakalla prison to pitch a program for female prisoners, one that would teach them how to handle flowers and how to design arrangements.

Not once in her many years working in the prison was Strandberg ever threatened or treated badly.

She was a little startled once when a tall, transgendered woman with a booming voice burst into her office after classes.

It turned out all the inmate wanted was to ask for permission to keep a bright pink artificial flower arrangement in her “apartment.”

The answer, after Strandberg checked with prison administrators, was yes.

While she has no bad memories, some are sad.

Like the bedraggled, sickly little inmate who told Strandberg she had never seen a real rose.

Strandberg allowed the woman to keep a rose on her workbench in the prison classroom, where it stayed until it dried out.

The woman graduated from the program, won parole and found work in the industry.

And every Mother’s Day she’d send Strandberg a card.

“Such a sweet girl,” she says.

When the provincial government closed Oakalla in 2003, the floral training program found a new home at The Phoenix Centre for integrated addiction services in Surrey.

The non-profit Just Beginnings flower shop trained former prisoners, single mothers and victims of domestic abuse struggling to start over.

It gained international attention when it won the contract to provide all of the victory bouquets awarded to medallists during the 2010 Winter Olympics.

The women would argue over whose bouquet was being held, Strandberg recalls.

Except one time when a winner banged the bouquet on his knee and it flew apart in front of live television cameras.

“Whose bouquet was that?” Strandberg demanded the next day.

No one would admit it.

Years later, Strandberg remains proud and protective of her students, careful to avoid using their real names.

“Nobody’s born bad,” Strandberg says.

“I didn’t care about what they did, I cared about what they could be.”

Behind Seven Locked Doors by June Strandberg was officially launched on Nov. 23.

Copies can be ordered online at friesenpress.com/bookstore.

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