Gayana Wijewickrema is one very special girl. Born with down-syndrome, she has the intellectual level of a seven-year-old, limited speech and relies on her family for most things. What she does have an abundance of though is heart, and a particular fondness for delivering flowers in a very unique way.
As she approached her 15th birthday last year, Gayana's family decided she needed a greater purpose. They were worried about her future, and unsure if she would ever be able to support herself. When they realised how limited employment opportunities for people with special needs were, they took matters into their own hands and created a place where Gayana, and her special personality, could thrive. The result? GG's Flowers, Canberra's socially sustainable florist, was born.
Gayana now spends her days with family crafting bouquets and delivering them locally. All with her added specialty: a personal hug.
It hasn't been an easy road though. Most days the family are up until the early hours sorting through orders for little-to-no profit. However, as big sister Nip Wijewickrema, 22, tells The Weekly, it’s the joy this simple act gives Gayana that makes it all worthwhile.
“She loves the hugs. Her hugs are her favourite things. She comes and knocks on your door and has these flowers and a big smile. But really, she wants to meet your dog and hug you and your dog when she knocks on your door.”
Nip works full-time and helps manage GG's Flowers in the spare moments she gets. Gayana's mother takes care of all the flowers and drives around the city to deliver them each day.
It's the love they have for Gayana and the bigger vision they have for the business that keeps them going, they say.
"We don't judge our business on profit," Nip tells The Weekly. "We judge it on Gayana's happiness."
By that measure alone, business is thriving. It does make the GG Girls' vision of becoming "the next Roses Only" slightly harder to realise though.
"The business isn't at all about money to us. But I dream about the day we have enough to get it to where we want it to be," Nip says.
"Number 1, we are only hiring people with special needs. We are really committed to ensuring we are providing meaningful employment opportunities to those with disabilities and ensuring they’re paid accordingly and mentored and educated and trained so they can build careers. One day our goal is that in ten years’ time for Gayana and her friends to run this awesome little business that we’ve set up where they’re quite self-sufficient. At the moment we’re not quite there yet."
The Canberra community have already rallied around the small business.The sisters are stopped on the street with people congratulating Gayana on the unique service she provides to the community.
It's the moments like this, Nip says, that make it all worthwhile. But ever-ambitious, her next goal is to pay the goodwill forward by employing people with special-needs across the business.
"We want [special-needs] accountants to shop assistants to florists to delivery drivers to everything in between."
The business has recently hired two special-need boys, Eli and Angus, who work alongside Gayana. While they would love to hire even more, it is not a viable business option just yet.
"All we want is for these people with special-needs to have a great life, and in return we hope big businesses and people can support us by buying their flowers from us," Nip says.
“Gayana now feels she is very special. We have always taught her to say ‘I’m a very special girl'. But now she knows it."