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Photo by: Ciara Varone - Mimi Chin, 77, helps homeless animals at her shop, Mimi's Flowers and Gifts, just north of Maitland. She once survived on crabgrass soup.
Winter Park / Maitland Observer Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2015 2 years ago

Casselberry florist finds life in bloom after a withering start

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Florist finds hapiness
by: Ciara Varone

Twenty years ago, Casselberry resident Mimi Chin sat on the side of U.S. Highway 17-92 with a bucket of water and $5 worth of carnations, trying to sell flowers and pick up the pieces after losing everything. Today, her business has blossomed into her own shop, Mimi’s Flowers and Gifts, situated not far from her humble roadside beginnings.

It is not the first time that 77-year-old Mimi has bounced back from having nothing.

At barely 5 feet tall and about 90 pounds, the little woman with a big heart has survived World War II, communist China and racism in the U.S.

Her father and grandfather immigrated to San Francisco in the 1920s, where they worked and sent money back to Mimi, her grandmother, mother and two brothers in China.

When World War II struck, there was no money to be sent. Mimi said things got so bad that her mother would tighten belts around their stomachs at night so the hunger pains would not keep them awake. They survived on crabgrass soup.

The war ended, but Mimi’s struggles were far from over.

“Communism came and everything turned upside down because back in that time, they hated Americans,” she said. With her father being overseas, Mimi was considered an American by her peers, who mercilessly teased her and hit her in the head with a bamboo stick.

Mimi and her family left everything behind, fleeing first to Hong Kong and then eventually to New Jersey, where she was able to meet her father for the first time.

But her American classmates were not any kinder than those back in China.

“The whole school, I was the only Chinese girl,” she said. “Schools were very prejudiced at that time. I felt very lonely. Nobody talked to me.” Over 60 years later, Mimi can’t hold back the tears. Her dog, Butters pounces anxiously on her small frame, desperately attempting to comfort her.

"She knows you're upset," her daughter Irene calls from the front of the shop.

After getting married and giving birth to her son and daughter, Mimi and her family moved to Casselberry, where they opened Jimmy and Mimi's Tea Garden Restaurant in 1979. She started forming bonds with patrons and establishing her name in the community, Irene said.

“People came here because my parents were part of the product,” she said.

Then Jimmy was diagnosed with a kidney problem, requiring dialysis for 13 and a half years. Mimi ran the business in addition to taking care of her husband for as long as she could, mortgaging her house three times to pay his medical bills, but was eventually forced to sell the restaurant in a bad deal, which she says cost her everything.

“I couldn’t take anymore. It seemed like the whole world came down on me and I don’t know what to do,” she said.

It was during this time that Mimi said she considered taking her own life to end the suffering. But then she found hope in her community.

“I went down to the church on Maitland Avenue called the First Baptist Church of Maitland. On Sunday, there is always somebody there. I told them, ‘I need somebody to help me. I want to live,’” Mimi said. The church sent a woman to talk to Mimi for the next three years, encouraging her to keep going, she said.

She also started practicing tai chi during this time.

“The philosophy [of tai chi] is, no matter how hard it is, it’s like a cement wall. If you look hard enough, there’s always a pinhole someplace,” she said. “If a pin can get through the cement wall, I can do it too.”

With this newfound encouragement, Mimi picked up her bucket and grew the business to what it is today.

“[I hope] I can help one person to not harm themselves ... to look forward and continue and just keep doing the good thing. Somehow you’re going to come out. Everything will be OK,” she said.

For Mimi, flowers “have a healing power. It is magical,” she said.

Mimi works in her shop seven days a week for at least eight hours a day.

“She’s 77 and she works harder than anybody half her age, even a third of her age,” Irene said. “She’s the way people should be: Work hard. Work fast. Have a purpose to every movement and have a pure heart.”

Mimi said she works to help people in any way she can. On slow days she sends flowers for free to people in nursing homes and local businesses. She also encourages donations to local toy and school supply drives by offering free flowers for anyone who donates to the causes.

Mimi also works to help homeless animals. She owns six rescued cats and her dog Butters. She feeds every stray that comes on her property, which sits just outside of Maitland city limits.

“They [are] part of the community too. They are totally ignored by a lot of people,” she said.

Leslie Yates, co-founder of My Shadow and Me dog rescue and Mimi’s neighbor of over 15 years, says Mimi has helped about 100 cats that have wandered on her property, always paying for them to be spayed or neutered and for any vet bills.

Yates said she has also seen Mimi help out the people who rent out her property and cannot always afford it.

“She helps a lot of people who are down and out or have had a lot of really rough breaks. She always tries to help people get back on their feet,” she said.

“She gets paid with people’s affection, I think,” Irene said, noting the bags of dog and cat food that customers bring Mimi nearly every day. “She never ever ever never does anything for herself.”

Mimi said she is selling the business later this month, because she is afraid that as she gets older, she will no longer be able to fill her customers’ orders, and doesn’t want to disappoint them.

“I know this community is the best community in the world. So many people [were] so good to me, so nice to me. I cannot disappoint them. I believe the remainder of my life, I [would] love to help people because this community is everything to me,” Mimi said. “It gave me hope [and] supported me through the restaurant, the flower shop, helped me raise my children, my family and gave me a safe place to live.”

Tammie Holiday, of God’s Way Church, rents the church’s office on Mimi's property, and says her impact on the community has been tremendous.

“From the moment we met her, we fell in love with Miss Mimi because she wants to help everybody,” Holiday said. “She’s all over the community, being a blessing every way she can.”

Irene said she is looking forward to spending quality time with her mom, who has earned her retirement.

“God, she’s done everything. She is the epitome of ‘do what you gotta do’ and because of her I expect more from myself and from other people,” Irene said.

“Thank God for Miss Mimi,” Holiday said.

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