All across the United States, and even outside of it, people are using Columbia resident Rich Hellmer's greeting cards to express gratitude and warm wishes during times of joy, and to encourage recipients to stay strong during times of difficulty.
"It's really simple, but at the same time it has a lot of meaning," Hellmer said.
By "simple," Hellmer means that he and his wife run their greeting card company, Radiant Exposures, out of their basement. Hellmer, who works full-time from home for a healthcare supply company, designs the cards; and his wife, Julie, evaluates his designs and manages the financial aspects of the business.
Since fall 2014, the couple has shipped more than 7,000 holiday, support and thank you cards, as well as custom wedding and shower invitations, to all 50 states and Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom.
"It's exciting because I never thought that some of the designs that came out of my head were going to be appreciated by people around the world," said Hellmer. "And it all started out with photographing flowers."
A few years ago, Hellmer's wife handed him a DSLR camera and said, "Go have fun and make a hobby out of it."
Hellmer wanted to do something with the photos he took, mostly of flowers, so he glued prints of them onto his first homemade greeting cards.
"They were hideous," he said.
His friends gave him some tips to make the card designs cleaner and more graphically appealing.
"Then I thought, maybe we can make things out of the flowers," said the Fredericksburg, Va., native.
Using PhotoShop, Hellmer created figures from the flowers he photographed in his garden. Before he knew it, he said, he had made a hummingbird from a thousand different daisies, each individually placed.
"My mother-in-law is always talking about hummingbirds. She loves them," Hellmer, 39, said. "They are courageous little birds in a little package."
In 2014, the Hellmers started advertising cards featuring the hummingbird design on a Facebook group called Hummingbirds Anonymous. They also started a product page on Etsy, the online marketplace for artists.
"It took off," said Hellmer.
For Christmas, he created a card with a hummingbird wearing a Santa hat.
"People loved the concept," he said. "The birding industry is so underserved right now with stuff. You can go buy food for birds, houses, but no apparel, and no cards."
Once the business had some success, Hellmer took it a step further and started designing cancer support cards. The first one featured his signature hummingbird.
"I wanted to make something happy, something supportive," he said. "The hummingbird, it's a strong, determined little bird that can overcome a lot of difficult things."
Hellmer said that many of his family members, including his grandmother, mother and mother-in-law, have been affected by the disease, and that much of his full-time work supports cancer research.
"We would make cancer ribbons out of daisies or a variety of other types of flowers," he said, "and it kind of caught on."
Some of Hellmer's neighbors who are involved with the Susan G. Komen breast cancer foundation started buying the cards and sending them to their friends and family. Soon he was getting orders from as far as Canada.
"A couple of folks have written me saying that these cards were such an inspiration to them that they mount them in their house and look at them every single day," said Hellmer.
One woman recently asked Hellmer to design a thank you card for donors of the foundation she started in memory of her 16-year-old son, who recently died from cancer. The card features a hummingbird with its beak in a blue flower — blue was her son's favorite color.
"She was very happy," Hellmer said. "You can be involved in people's lives kind of indirectly with the designs that you come up with. Particularly with this little boy that passed, you're involved in these people's memories."
Radiant Exposures, which donates about 20 percent of its proceeds to St. Jude's Children's Hospital, the American Cancer Society and the Wounded Warrior Project, has since expanded to the baby and wedding markets. There are more than 200 designs on its Etsy page, including several for customizable baby and wedding shower thank-you cards.
"We looked at a variety of greeting card companies, and it was just expensive," Hellmer said. "People are worried about paying for their wedding and not having to pay to say thank you to somebody. The same thing goes with a baby — you're worried about paying for your child's diapers every month.
"So we came up with a pretty inexpensive way with pretty popular designs to make it more affordable for folks to say thank you."
Hellmer designs, prints and packages the cards in the basement of his home using a professional-grade printer and his laptop. Sometimes he enlists his 8-year-old daughter, Emily, and 4-year-old son, Andy, to help fold them.
Each card costs $1 to purchase. On occasion, if someone is unable to pay for the cards, especially the support cards, Hellmer will send them for free.
"There's the compassionate side and the business side, and you have to have both to run a successful business," he said.
Going forward, Hellmer hopes to get his designs into more retail outlets. So far the cards are available at two shops in Cape May, N.J.
He also wants to expand into the medical support community, and create more support cards for people who have lost loved ones.
"So again, really being able to touch people," he said.
He is amazed by how much the business has grown.
"It was going to be wine-spending money," Hellmer said. "It's become much more than that."