How a JustServe project went viral, leading to thousands of handmade Christmas ornaments for flood victims

Many families have special ornaments collected over several years or a lifetime for their Christmas trees. But when disaster strikes, and homes are damaged or destroyed, these precious items are lost, too. 

Terrible flooding hit southeastern and central Kentucky in spring 2021, and many residents faced a Christmas still trying to rebuild their lives. Samone Ratcliff, a JustServe specialist in the Lexington Kentucky Stake, thought volunteers might be able to help by making Christmas tree ornaments to give to those families.

She figured people might like to participate from home, so she decided to aim high, and listed a project on JustServe.org with a goal to get 1,000 ornaments. She quit counting after 5,800.

Homemade ornaments came in from 18 states — people as far away as Hawaii and California sent new ornaments to share. 

Shells and felt and other materials make up new ornaments from California sent to Kentucky for flood victims for Christmas 2021.
Shells and felt and other materials make up new ornaments from California sent to Kentucky for flood victims for Christmas 2021. Credit: Samone Ratcliff

Beauty after devastation

Children, youth groups, churches of different denominations, families, older adults and others contributed everything from simple designs to hand-crafted masterpieces that took a lot of time and love.

“I think people are just desperate for good news, and to help,” said Ratcliff. “You see these images on TV and you wish and wonder if you could do something. This was the perfect thing at the perfect time.”

She believes the project got so much attention because she was able to list it on JustServe as an option for volunteering remotely. This project was sixth on the list and went viral.

A young man made ornaments for his birthday party, said Ratcliff. Friends of a young mother with terminal cancer made ornaments of the things she loved and submitted them in her name. People who couldn’t go out and physically labor to clean up or rebuild after the flooding sent notes saying they were happy they could still serve from home by creating something for the victims.

Lexington Kentucky Stake JustServe specialist Samone Ratcliff made these heart ornaments from a quilt that had been salvaged from a flooded home. She gave them back to flooding victims for Christmas 2021.
Lexington Kentucky Stake JustServe specialist Samone Ratcliff made these heart ornaments from a quilt that had been salvaged from a flooded home. She gave them back to flooding victims for Christmas 2021. Credit: Samone Ratcliff

One set of new Christmas ornaments came from a tree that had been toppled by Hurricane Ida. The makers sliced the wood into rounds and painted a message on each piece. Ratcliff herself took a quilt that was salvaged but damaged from the flooding, and cut out hearts and added lace to make Christmas ornaments from that quilt.

“Out of devastation, a thing of beauty came,” said Ratcliff.

Assembly and delivery

Church members and neighbors assemble homemade Christmas ornaments from 18 states that were sent to Kentucky for flooding victims. The assembly took place in the meetinghouse in Winchester, Kentucky, on Nov. 23, 2021.
Church members and neighbors assemble homemade Christmas ornaments from 18 states that were sent to Kentucky for flooding victims. The assembly took place in the meetinghouse in Winchester, Kentucky, on Nov. 23, 2021. Credit: Samone Ratcliff

Volunteers gathered in late November in a Latter-day Saint meetinghouse in Winchester, Kentucky, to sort and package for distribution the thousands of ornaments. The volunteers packaged 12 ornaments in bundles, so each household could have a good start to a new Christmas collection.

Then, local agencies and community organizations like Powell County Emergency Management delivered the new ornaments to flooding victims throughout Kentucky. There were enough ornaments to give to some families in Tennessee, as well. 

Ratfliff said she made sure to let those community organizations know to share with the families what it meant for the volunteers to serve them.

“They prayed for them, they worried about them, and they just poured their hearts into these ornaments,” explained Ratcliff. “Their brothers and sisters across the nation had thought about them.” 

New relationships

Ratcliff doesn’t know where all the ornaments went, but she has heard back from some people who received them. “They were flabbergasted at the beauty and quality of the things they were given, all made by hand. The time that went into producing these — it was just a labor of love.”

Ratcliff said she and other JustServe specialists and volunteers from the Church built new relationships with community members and organizations through this service project, and they will continue to work with them. She plans to look for opportunities in the future to do something similar.

“I’ve made wonderful new friends,” said Ratcliff. “Out of devastation came beauty.”