Tuesday morning, Laura Davis drove a “van full of love” to Bowling Green. Love, in this case, being 4,800 homemade ornaments.
Since 2020, Davis and a growing contingent of crafty well-doers have made homemade ornaments to send to survivors of natural disasters across the country as part of Operation Christmas Ornaments from Near and Far.
The first year, the group delivered 600 ornaments to wildfire survivors in Talent and Lincoln City, Oregon. In 2021, they sent nearly 6,000 to people affected by Kentucky and Tennessee flooding and tropical storms elsewhere. This year, their main focus is on Western Kentucky and parts of Tennessee, nearly a year after tornadoes struck the area.
“In a natural disaster, most people don’t think about the ornaments that they lost,” Davis said. “They think about their daily living things, and then it comes to the holidays and they forget things like their ornaments that had sentimental value.”
Operation Christmas Ornaments from Near and Far originated after Davis’ friend conducted interviews with natural disaster survivors. She asked them what they missed most, and they mentioned Christmas ornaments and other things of sentimental value.
Since 2020, the Facebook group has grown to over 800 members and people have sent in ornaments from 32 states and Japan. In this year’s Western Kentucky batch, there were ornaments with sea shells encased in resin from Hawaii, snowmen made from baby socks and several dozen crocheted ornaments.
Each of the 400 family packs sent to Bowling Green, each with 12 ornaments inside, included a note denoting which state the ornaments were from and a message from the creators saying things like “we can’t replace everything, but we can replace your ornaments,” Davis said.
The group’s first Western Kentucky stop on Monday was to Dawson Springs at Pennyrile State Park. Their second was Jennings Creek Elementary on Tuesday morning, where they presented ornaments to the Blevens household.
The Blevens lost everything in the tornado, including their home in Whispering Hills. They aren’t sure if they’ll be able to go back.
Lillian Whitmore, in sixth grade, accepted the ornaments in the Jennings Creek gym alongside her younger siblings: Kindergartener Hannah Blevens and second-grade twins Bentley and Makenna Blevens.
Whitmore said the tornado experience was “very scary” and that the holiday season is bittersweet.
“It’s hard because the tornado was around Christmas time, so it’s bringing back memories of it,” Whitmore said.
She added that she appreciated the community’s help.
Davis reached out to Glenda Beck, member of Bowling Green’s Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, to ask if she’d be interested in helping to distribute ornaments to families in need.
Beck gladly accepted, and said they were distributing to several places, including the Foundry and the HIVE.
Beck said that when the van pulled into Bowling Green, “people just exploded with excitement.”
“It felt like Polar Express,” she said.
Next year, Davis is already planning to return to Kentucky, this time to help the survivors of the Eastern Kentucky flooding last summer. It takes about 10-12 months for people to get back on their feet or in housing situations in which they are ready for ornaments, she said.
The effort is about more than ornaments, Davis said. It’s about bringing people together across communities.
“As we come together as a nation, we can light the world with good in a world that’s usually very dark,” Davis said. “I feel like we have united so many people in a common cause and that has really helped my heart.”