In the dozen years that she spent with Aaron Hewitt — first as his colleague, then as his friend, then as his girlfriend, and ultimately as his wife — Valentine’s Day was never really that important to Amanda Hewitt.
Aaron, she says, was really good about giving her cards and gifts and showing affection all year long.
But in June 2022, while Aaron was walking a section of the famed Camino de Santiago trail in northern Spain, the Charlotte-based physician’s assistant collapsed and died of sudden cardiac arrest. He was only 46 years old, and Amanda, just shy of her 39th birthday at the time, was suddenly a widow.
Although celebrating their love on Feb. 14 had never been a big deal for them before, last year she found herself dreading Valentine’s Day as the date approached.
“Once it’s taken from you,” Amanda Hewitt admits, “that void is felt pretty immensely.”
This uniquely painful feeling of emptiness is felt, of course, by legions of women who’ve lost husbands — and is precisely the feeling Charlotte florist Ashley Manning was aiming to address in 2021 when she created the Valentine’s Day Widow Outreach Project, which centers on the act of delivering floral arrangements and baskets of gifts to local widows.
The undertaking gained swift momentum: In 2023, Amanda’s first Valentine’s Day since Aaron’s passing, it counted her among 800 who got surprise visitors, in her case three of her friends bearing a bouquet, wine, jewelry and other goodies donated by local vendors.
There were hugs, of course; and tears, of course. Mostly, however, there were smiles.
“There’s no real substitute,” Hewitt says, “but I feel like this program is so thoughtful, especially on that day when it’s so Hallmark about love and couples. ... I think her (Manning’s) whole impetus for this program is just letting these women know that they are still remembered and seen.”
And the project’s impact continues to grow. Manning says she hopes this year’s tally will include 1,000 deliveries. Maybe even 1,200.
At the same time, there’s a case to be made that this thing she started is already touching the lives of far more people than she’ll ever be able to count.
‘I want you to know how much that meant’
Manning started her flower business — Pretty Things by A.E. Manning — in 2019, shortly after the birth of her fourth child, son Luke.
A former pharmaceutical sales rep turned full-time mom, she was just looking for some sort of mental-health release from the kid-caused chaos in her life. She did her arranging out of the garage.
When her first Valentine’s Day as a florist rolled around in 2020, on a whim, she decided to buy some flowers at Trader Joe’s to assemble special bouquets for some single women she knew through Calvary Church and for her middle son Marc’s preschool teacher, whom Manning knew had been widowed.
After the pandemic started that March, she didn’t see his teacher again until a year-end drive-by event for the children. But when she did, Manning recalls, she told her, “‘I just want you to know how much that meant to me, that you thought of me on that day.’”
Manning was inspired by those words. By her own idea, and by the notion of doing it on a larger scale.
So, as Valentine’s Day 2021 approached, she posted a challenge to her followers on social media. The basic idea was: If you place an order with me, and note on the form that you’d like to add $5 to do something nice for a widow, I’ll add $5 of my own to make a $10 donation to my project.
Few people did what she was suggesting. Instead, many simply reached into their pocketbooks and gave her a straight-up donation.
“There was this quote from (noted pastor) Andy Stanley,” she says. “It said, ‘Your greatest contribution to the kingdom of God may not be something you do, but someone you raise.’ And for the first (several) years of motherhood, I just told myself that every day, ‘The work I do here in this house with my family is more important than anything I’ll ever do.’”
But shortly before she started her flower business — shortly before she decided to give flowers to her son’s preschool teacher — she found herself wondering:
“‘Is there something I’m gonna do in this world that’s greater than just this?’”
Two Valentine’s Days later, she had an answer. On Feb. 14, 2021, 119 widows (and two widowers) opened their doors to find a bouquet of flowers thanks to Manning.
That fall, though, she would experience a tragedy of her own.
A devastating blow
In November 2021, she was hanging out at her home with a girlfriend and playing with their kids on the floor when her then-6-year-old son Marc came up behind her and swung his hand at her head.
He was just goofing around, but he managed to inadvertently clock her squarely in her right eye.
Initially, it didn’t seem like he’d hit her that hard. But the next day she experienced a flash in her vision and the day after that, yet more unsettling flashes. She wound up being admitted to the emergency room and would learn that the blow had caused hemorrhaging, a detachment and retinal tears. Before the end of the year, she would undergo multiple eye surgeries.
By the time Valentine’s Day rolled around in 2022, Manning was still coping with chronic pain and a rigorous parade of medical procedures. Still, she was optimistic that doctors could save the vision in that eye, while her Widow Outreach Project served as a welcome joyful distraction, with Year Two seeing 300 volunteers make arrangements out of 13,000 stems of flowers in the front yard of her south Charlotte home.
For most of the year, though, she was ailing both physically and emotionally.
In total, she had 11 surgeries, and recovery from retinal surgery required Manning to lie face down on a massage table for up to several weeks to ensure proper healing. She often wore a patch, or had gauze taped over her eye. Despite having four children, she wasn’t able to drive for 10 months.
And ultimately, efforts to preserve the sight in her injured eye were unsuccessful.
“After all that, to then lose it — like, it’s one thing if I just lost it right away, and then I had grieved. But ... my grief lasted a long time.” And once she learned there was no hope, “I was a mess. I lost every good part of me, I feel like.”
Manning was struggling so severely that she wasn’t sure she even felt like doing her Valentine’s Day event anymore.
Publicly, however, she rolled ahead with 2023 plans that included not just a goal of serving 800 widows in Charlotte, but also providing a template for women who wanted to start Widow Outreach Projects in the Pittsburgh area (the woman there being her sister, Lisa) and in a Minneapolis suburb.
The message kept spreading. Donations totaled roughly $70,000 (including $5,000 from actress Jamie Lee Curtis, who apparently learned about Manning’s project via social media and praised Manning on Instagram for her “advocacy and love and humanity”).
Between Feb. 13 and 14 of last year, prep work and day-of deliveries was handled by roughly 500 volunteers — enough that the traffic into her neighborhood backed up all the way out onto Rea Road.
‘Imagine the men in heaven watching you’
Manning says she doesn’t personally make any money off of the endeavor at all, and in earlier years she spent money out of her own pocket to make it happen.
In 2023, however, the total costs ran up to only $44,000, meaning $26,000 was carried over to this year. Including that remainder of funds, the project once again went into 2024 with right around $70,000 at its disposal, with most of the donations coming from community members. (There is no title sponsor or significant source of any corporate funding.)
About a thousand widows have been nominated, but she’s budgeted for 1,200 — and widows can indeed be repeat customers, so to speak. “It’s my wish,” Manning says, “that everybody gets it every year. There’s no limit to how many times they can get it.”
Due to the growth, the operation will move off of her street and into nearby William R. Davie Park on Pineville-Matthews Road.
Meanwhile, her sister’s program anticipates some 300 deliveries, Kayleen Jensen is shooting for 150 up in Minnesota, and women inspired by Manning are launching events this year in Nashville, Tennessee; Buffalo, New York; Spokane, Washington; Cincinnati, Ohio; and The Woodlands in Texas.
Manning gets emotional when she thinks about the growth and the impact of her idea.
Last year, she recalls, a woman she knows from church said to her: “‘Can you imagine the men in heaven watching you take care of their wives? If that was you, and it’s your wife, and you’re just watching.’” Her voice shakes. “It was like, This is what it’s all about.”
But while her idea is niche-focused, she hopes it “inspires more people to put love into other things — not just widows, if that’s not somebody relevant in your life.”
She can rest assured that it has.
A special connection
Consider Michelle Boudin, the Charlotte woman who wrote the story about Manning for People Magazine in 2022.
Although she says “Valentine’s Day wasn’t necessarily a holiday that I loved before,” Boudin was so taken by the Widow Outreach Project that she returned in a dual capacity in 2023: as a reporter covering the event for Charlotte’s NBC affiliate, WCNC, but also as a volunteer who helped out by making deliveries.
“I mean, it’s an immediate mood boost,” she says, “just this incredible, uplifting way to spend Valentine’s Day.”
Now, Boudin says Feb. 14 “is something that I genuinely look forward to,” and she plans to return this year in both roles again, with friends. On top of that, there’s this:
“I lost my mom a year and a half ago, in May of 2022,” she says. “And when the one-year anniversary came around, I was trying to figure out how to mark the day. Well, I thought about Valentine’s Day and how that changed my thought process.”
Because her mother was a schoolteacher, Boudin decided to spend the whole day volunteering in a local classroom, where she threw a party for the kids and gave them books. “So the one-year anniversary of my mom’s death became this loving tribute to her — and the concept came from Ashley and Valentine’s Day.”
And then there’s Amanda Hewitt, the Charlotte woman who lost her husband Aaron a year and a half ago.
Amanda actually knew Manning before all this — they were sorority sisters at Virginia Tech in the early 2000s. The two women moved to Charlotte around the same time after college, but over the years fell mostly out of touch as Amanda and Aaron relocated to Naples, Florida, in 2018, and as Manning got absorbed with her fast-growing family.
Their lives intersected again, due to tragic circumstances, after the Hewitts moved back to Charlotte in late May of 2022. Aaron died just two weeks later.
The following February, Amanda’s three friends showed up on her doorstep with flowers, gifts and a card with Manning’s name on it.
She relayed the experience to her mother, who lives in Virginia and who also wound up taking inspiration from it — Hewitt’s mom plans, this year, to do something special for a friend who recently lost her husband. “It’s a neat thing to see that it’s spider-webbing out,” Amanda Hewitt says, “that it’s catching on.”
Even so, her voice shakes as she talks about Manning’s Widow Outreach Project. It is neat, and it is catching on. But it’s also worth remembering that, for someone who’s been through what Hewitt has, it can be equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking.
In fact, when asked whether she plans to volunteer, as other widow-recipients have gone on to do, she hesitates.
“I was talking with her just the other night (about this),” Hewitt says. “I have mixed feelings. I have this calling to want to volunteer. But then, as it got closer, I didn’t feel like I was —” She pauses, stays silent for a moment, then restarts: “— maybe emotionally ready for being around it. And she was just like, ‘It’s there when you need it. You take your time. You’ll know when you’re ready.’
“So yes, I mean, I hate for anyone to be in those shoes, but I would like to think at some point in my life that I can be there and do that. Because it is such a sweet program.”
For more information about Manning’s Valentine’s Day Widow Outreach Program: www.valentinesdaywidowoutreach.com.