Father Harvey Has a Message About Jobs for Wayward City Kids, and He Says It with Flowers

updated 08/05/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/05/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Five years ago Tyrone Thomas was a street-hardened, 16-year-old convicted thief serving out a nine month jail sentence in New York. Ahead of him lay only parole, a return to the dirt-poor Brooklyn slum where he grew up and probably more crime. Then Tyrone met Father James Harvey, a Catholic priest whose highly unlikely calling was putting young ex-cons to work in flower shops. "I had never worked with flowers, didn't think it was my kind of job," Tyrone says. "But the program changed my life. I'm not out on the street scramblin', runnin' around for this and that." In fact, after four and a half years in his new trade, Tyrone is considered a first-rate floral designer by his employers and is even thinking of starting his own place—in partnership with another grad from the same program.

For Tyrone Thomas and more than 1,000 other despairing young criminals, Father Jim Harvey, 40, is literally a lifesaver. The priest founded and directs Flowers With Care, a nonprofit, non-sectarian corporation whose headquarters is a former convent in Queens. Boasting an astonishing 90 percent success rate in rehabilitation, the program presently has an enrollment of some 700 offenders (about 100 of them girls), to whom it provides counseling, medical attention, nine months of training and the prospect of a minimum-wage job—all at a cost of $1,026 per youngster (versus the $27,000 annual tab for a New York state prison stay). There are only two bars to enrollment. "We don't accept kids with heavy drug or alcohol addiction problems," Father Harvey says, because he and his staff of 12 are not equipped to treat such cases. This year, thanks to the cleric's tireless fund raising, Flowers With Care plans to convert an adjacent, unused school building into administrative offices and to renovate the present center into a residence for about 30 kids. The residence will be named Dismas Center, after the "good thief" who was crucified with Christ.

Father Harvey plays down his role in the program's success. "I'm just an intermediary between the kids and the store owners," he says. "I bring them together." The results of that introduction, however, are life-changing. Before they leave the classes, Father Harvey's kids know the basics of the florists' trade from customer service and floral arranging to packing the garbage. His young charges, ages 16 to 24 but mostly under 18, usually come to him shockingly uneducated (second-grade math and third-grade reading levels are common), bedraggled and undernourished. "They also have medical problems you wouldn't believe," Father Harvey says. "They don't know what it is to feel good." Seventy percent are black and Hispanic, most are abused castouts of broken homes, and all have been accused of one or more crimes, from shoplifting to armed robbery.

The idea of turning young offenders into apprentice florists took seed two years after Father Harvey's ordination in 1971, when the Brooklyn native began a frustrating stint as chaplain in two major lockups—Riker's Island and the Queens House of Detention. "After three months I realized I was just as much an inmate as the real inmates," he says. "I was working 14, 15 hours a day. We'd get 40 new admissions a day, and I'd get 15 to 20 minutes with each. It was very superficial. I wasn't touching their lives." He felt especially helpless about the younger ones and concluded that the criminal justice system was a "farce" that recycled young criminals onto the streets with little more than a shove toward menial jobs.

In 1975 the priest mentioned his frustration to Bob Palliser, a sympathetic friend and Queens florist. Father Harvey said he would get Palliser more customers—banks, corporations, churches—if he would take on the training of a few young offenders. They agreed, and that in effect launched Flowers With Care. The scheme that had started "as a lark"—with both men teaching, selling and playing big brother—has since produced 43 skilled workers.

Palliser, 38, who left the program in 1979 after he grew weary of teaching, remembers telling the kids straight off: " 'This is a business, not a charity or handout. You get paid.' I was strict, no nonsense. I taught job habits." But Father Harvey says his friend taught more than how to cut, bunch and vase up flowers. The rough-edged Vietnam vet was also a solid role model for the street-smart ex-cons. One of his pupils, William Tait, is now the head floral designer for a chain of shops. As for Tyrone Thomas, the grateful ex-thief, he was nurtured by Ruth and Gene Kessler, owners of a flower shop in New York's Pennsylvania Station. The Kesslers are typical of the 48 florists participating in the program today. They invite their young charges (they now have four) home for dinner, take them to ball games, and provide warmth and guidance far beyond the usual boss-employer relationship.

Douglas Gallehr, 33, Flowers With Care's second alum, had served a year in jail for passing bad checks. "Father Harvey told me anybody can make a mistake once, but only a fool makes it a second time," says Gallehr, now owner of a Manhattan shop. "When you come out of jail, you just need one person who really wants to help and give you that one chance. For me, Father Harvey was that break. I didn't know about flowers, not even their names." He spent eight years learning and working before going successfully on his own. Says Bob Palliser admiringly: "Douglas could sell the Brooklyn Bridge to anyone."

Father Harvey still shows the kids how to trim and snip (just as he learned years ago from Palliser) when he's not scouring corporations for funds. He believes his protégés blossom in business because flowers bring quick and often deeply moving rewards. "They get instant satisfaction," he says. "A kid takes an order, goes to the back of the shop, prepares the arrangement, returns, and the customer says, 'That's beautiful!' Now where else would a kid who's been called a loser all his life get that kind of appreciation? Not washing dishes. And there's something else. In dealing with flowers they also become a part of the sadness of a funeral or the superjoy of a wedding."

Flowers With Care, which has begun to place trainees in other kinds of small businesses because some of the kids have allergies or just aren't interested in the florist business, has had its failures. "It's depressing," says Harvey. "There are times when I go home and cry myself to sleep. It's the frustration of hurt kids and being hurt by the kids. Sometimes you put your faith in somebody, and then all of a sudden they disappear. That hurts." Still, few of Father Harvey's charges have been rearrested, and that is triumph enough to soothe many heartaches. "To save a kid's life," he says "I couldn't put that satisfaction into words. To have them come up and say Thank you' and put their arms around you—that means it all."

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