Couple brings comfort and flowers to communities experiencing loss

By Bridgette M. Redman

Classroom of Compassion founders David Maldonado and Noah Reich have set up installations and created altars across the country.

In a land filled with gun violence, police brutality, domestic terrorism and acts of hatred based on a person’s skin color, ethnicity or sexual orientation, it becomes continually necessary to create a counterbalance to teach tolerance and love.

That is why Noah Reich and David Maldonado have created Classroom of Compassion, a floral and creative arts organization that builds altars to help people mourn loved ones. Recent projects have included a tribute to Breonna Taylor that traveled around Los Angeles, a Parkland project and a six-year Sandy Hook anniversary commemoration.

They also created a tribute to Ruth Bader Ginsburg at Skirball Cultural Center and a tribute to Alex Trebek at his Hollywood Star. Their next project begins on Valentine’s Day. The two will spend a year honoring those lost to COVID-19.

Reich and Maldonado, who called Santa Monica home for many years, came up with the original idea and launched the organization after the 2016 Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando.

“This new era of rhetoric of violence has been seeping into our community discourse, that was the awakening moment for us,” Reich said. “Now is the time for us to care for the community that had raised us. We began showing up at activations all around the city. We started really being in conversation with our community wherever our community was coming together.”

Their travels took them wherever there was tragedy — creating places to grieve in Sandy Hook in Newtown, Connecticut; at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, in El Paso after the Walmart shooting. And in each place, they used flowers, photos and words of compassion to help those who were grieving.

“The first year we began the Classroom of Compassion, we knew we wanted to honor communities and spaces that were going through tragedy,” Maldonado said. “It was really this focus on communal grief that began the Classroom of Compassion. For us it was seeing all of these broken hearts around us. We began a practice of compassion as a way of being in touch with the suffering around us.”

By traveling and using flowers, they felt they were bringing the sunshine of Los Angeles on the road with them, providing a warmth that comes with care. With the exception of Sandy Hook, where the temperature was prohibitive, all the flowers are live and fresh. They are a symbol and a teaching method, the co-founders say.

“Our practice so often centers around flowers for a few reasons,” Reich said. “The art of flower picking and arranging is one that affords us the opportunity to slow down to be still and experience beauty in a moment. Flowers also teach us really powerful lessons about grief. Beauty and life are so often connected to impermanence and that practice of impermanence is one we are continuously learning and relearning and reminding ourselves.”

Honoring those lost to COVID-19

This past year has seen an abundance of grief, even though according to a database compiled by The Associated Press, USA Today and Northeastern University, there have been the least amount of mass shootings in more than a decade. Reich and Maldonado are launching a project to try to help process that grief and honor the lives that have been lost. It is also important to them to help create communities for those who are mourning and help connect them with others.

“We can feel so alone in a moment or in a time when we are mourning 400,000 plus people lost to COVID-19 this past year,” Reich said. “That number, the gravity of loss can feel so large, can feel insurmountable. What we work to do is really honor the sanctity of life, life by life.”

Their goal is to invite others into their classroom where they can learn to do the kind of art that they do, to share their methods of creation with others.

“Our hope on this quest has always been to empower as many individuals as possible with the tool of creating so people can be compassion artists in their own community,” Reich said. “They can be upstanders for their neighbors and loved ones.”

The project will be called “Los Angeles, I Hope U Know How Loved U Are.” They plan to take all they have learned from Classroom of Compassion and create a community care response model to be in touch with families who are grieving those lost to the virus.

“We find ourselves at the epicenter of this crisis and I think the lessons Dave and I have learned all these years with Classroom of Compassion have been lessons of communal grief,” Reich said. “Our hope is to share those tools with as many families as possible in this moment, to share the practices of compassion with as many Angelenos in this moment, to show what it looks like so others can practice it.”

Starting Feb. 14, they will create at least one tabletop altar per day for families that request one. Families will submit photos of their loved ones and share stories about them. Reich and Maldonado will make a tabletop altar, which they’ll deliver along with a “compassion basket” filled with flowers so that family members can create their own space and arrange the flowers as they choose. It marks a change in the scale and scope of their usual projects as each one will be in people’s homes rather than in public spaces.

“A lot of the work we have done has always been with large amounts of people,” Reich said. “We’ve worked on the streets. We work where we are always surrounded by people. We have been working to adapt how we continue doing this work as safely as possible in the current moment and how we can provide these practices for people in their homes.”

Their goal is to honor at least 365 love stories over the course of a year, sharing narratives and capturing life lessons from those who have been lost. They want to honor at least one loved one a day, but their intention is to exceed that goal.

“We’re giving ourselves the year to practice family by family with the hope and intention we can grow and offer it to any family that may need the space in this moment,” Reich said.

After the altars have been delivered to people’s homes, the pair will ask recipients to photograph themselves as they work on the altar and to share their final product. Classroom of Compassion will then collect the information and stories. They are in the process of partnering with other organizations in LA to create a larger, living memorial for the community.

Paying it forward

Maldonado shared a story about a woman for whom they created an altar. She had lost her son to violence in the street and didn’t have access to his body.

“For her, the altar, the memorial and the vigil were really that closure she needed for not being able to have both access to the body and access to any of the final steps of putting someone to rest,” Maldonado said. “Having that almost life-sized representation of her son—she was able to share that. It was one of the most healing things she could have experienced in that moment.”

They’ve stayed in contact with her and she has gone on to become one of their biggest supporters, helping others have access to what she had and participating in the cycle of nurturing others going through grief.

It is that cycle that speaks to the “classroom” part of their name. They say that compassion is something we have to always be learning. It can often be an uncomfortable place to be. What they do provides places for communal healing where everyone can learn how to process grief together.

Reich said the Ruth Bader Ginsburg memorial was an example of that. It was established as a drive-by memorial so people could still come together but do it safely.

“Literally hundreds of Angelenos who came through that drive-through memorial got to pay their respects,” Reich said. “The day started with the literal altar piece that Dave and I had created. By the end of the evening, the staircase of the Skirball Cultural Center was filled up with thank-you cards, notes, gifts and stories of people from across the city who were so touched by this person who had done so much for our country and community. We found Angelenos from all walks of life that day who felt compelled, like us, to physically show up at a space and pay our respects. I think that is a practice for all of us.”

Ram Dass, an American spiritual teacher and author, is famous for his quote: “At the end of the day, we are all just walking each other home.” It is something both founders are committed to now and going forward.

“Compassion is a practice,” Maldonado said. “We are living through an extraordinary moment. This is very much a marathon of grief that we are all experiencing and any way we can be kind and compassionate to one another, to help walk one another home, we need to do.”