In roughly the past 12 months, tornadoes in Kentucky and Tennessee and a wildfire in Colorado destroyed thousands of homes. Even as the survivors moved and rebuilt, this December they faced their first Christmas in a new place without cherished memories.
But because of kind-hearted people from all over the United States — and as far away as Japan — those survivors had something this year to hang on their Christmas trees.
Carolyn Nicolaysen had the idea for “Operation Christmas Ornaments” as she was interviewing disaster survivors for her role teaching emergency preparedness classes. Nicolaysen, who recently moved from California to the San Antonio Texas Cibolo Valley Stake, would often hear survivors say that they missed their Christmas ornaments.
“What this project does is help the survivors understand that they are important and they are remembered. They haven’t been forgotten,” she said.
Her efforts began in 2020 when her daughter was a Relief Society president in Oregon. The city of Talent had a terrible fire, and Nicolaysen got six of her family members and friends to make ornaments for people who had lost their homes. They made around 600.
This year, the total reached 20,000. Through JustServe and the Operation Christmas Ornaments From Near and Far Facebook page, enough ornaments were made to serve over 1,600 families in Kentucky, Tennessee and Colorado. Each family got a bundle of 12.
“The response is incredible. It’s just — it makes me tear up every time I try to talk about it,” Nicolaysen said. “We have people crying, and they can’t believe that someone in Alaska and all these other places would make an ornament for them.”
God’s hand in the details
Nicolaysen and other group administrators such as Carol Burton in Colorado and Laura Davis in Kentucky worked with community organizations to identify who could use the Christmas ornaments this year.
Davis met a park ranger in Kentucky who knew families, and a communications specialist in western Kentucky who led them to a school where they passed out ornaments to children whose homes had been destroyed by last year’s tornado.
Other connections came in unexpected ways. Nicolaysen was on a plane to Denver, Colorado, and struck up a conversation with the woman next to her. That woman worked for a doctor who lived in the neighborhood where homes were lost in the Marshall Fire. He had a lot of contacts and patients who were then able to receive ornaments.
While handing out ornaments at an event in Colorado in November, Nicolaysen and Burton met survivors of the Marshall Fire who were also able to embrace each other and talk to each other for the first time since the fire.
Then, Burton received a comment on the Facebook page from a woman in Colorado who used to live in Japan but had lost the ornaments she bought there. Burton went through just a few bags of the 500 sets she had and found an ornament created in Japan to send her.
Youth in the Westminster Colorado Stake and the Louisville Kentucky Stake helped package ornaments into sets. One of the young men in Kentucky found an ornament that had been sent in from the state of Washington. He picked it up and said he had been born in that state.
“It’s just amazing how it all comes together,” Nicolaysen said. “There are miracles all along the way. You can see God’s hand in it, almost daily.”
Missionaries have helped deliver ornaments. One man in Bowling Green, Kentucky, saw missionaries at the door and was ready to say something to them if they told him about the Church.
But when he opened the door, they told him, “We understand you lost your home in the tornado and we are here to bring you a gift. These are ornaments that were made by people all over the country just for you. Merry Christmas.”
Nicolaysen said the man said it changed his opinion about the Church. She shared, “Isn’t that what gathering Israel is all about? To let people know we love them and are here to serve them.”
The ornament makers
Most of the donations have come through Church members who found the project through JustServe. Primary children, young men, young women and Relief Society groups have made ornaments. But groups not associated with the Church have also contributed thousands of ornaments, Nicolaysen said.
“When people find out about us, they just want to help. It’s amazing,” she said. “On the Facebook page, we had a map, with the states colored according to whether we had received ornaments from them. People would look at that map and see a state where they knew somebody and would tag them.” By December, 33 states were represented.
The ornaments were made from a huge variety of materials and craftsmanship, from ornaments glued together by children to handcrafted treasures that could be sold at a craft fair. The volunteers packaging the ornaments together tried to make up each set of 12 with something that represented everything, and each ornament had a tag attached with a message or note indicating where it was created.
Nicolaysen said she has heard from people who made ornaments at their family reunions to donate. Her husband’s cousin started getting friends together last January once a month to make ornaments. They made over 1,000.
“We’ve had people say, “I invited all my neighbors to make ornaments, and none of them are members of the Church, and now we are all friends,’” she said. “It’s like the Prophet has told us — service benefits us, too, and it helps our soul. It’s not just helping the people who are receiving them, it’s helping the people who are making them. It’s helping them to grow.”
Last year, ornaments made from fallen trees were mailed in from people in Oregon and Louisiana. In Oregon, an ice storm made a tree fall and they made ornaments from the tree. In Louisiana, they made ornaments from a tree that fell during Hurricane Laura.
“They were using their own disaster to bless someone else,” Nicolaysen said. “This year, we got ornaments from survivors whom we served last year in Tennessee. We’ve had several survivors who have said, ‘This meant so much and I want to help next year.’ It’s a ripple effect of love and caring.”
As the group prepares for next year, administrators posted on Facebook some tips for crafting, assembling and mailing ornaments, as well as addresses for different coordinators in different areas of the country. And Nicolaysen recently found a coordinator in Florida to be able to give ornaments to people in that state after Hurricane Ian.
“Our goal is to make sure survivors do not feel forgotten,” she said.