Georgia woman’s holiday ornaments immortalize late loved ones’ voices

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A decade ago, a Georgia woman’s late grandparents left her and her brother a priceless gift: their voices wishing them a Merry Christmas for years to come.

It would later inspire Savannah Kelly, owner of Savannah-based recordable ornaments company Holiday Voices, to help other families ensure their loved ones would live on each holiday season.

“You don’t realize how much you’re going to miss someone’s voice until you can’t hear it anymore,” said Kelly, who donated a carton of the red, green and gold ornaments to patients of Hospice Savannah on Giving Tuesday.

In 1993, Kelly’s grandparents recorded messages on ornaments and placed them in keepsake boxes. Kelly’s mother gave her and her brother the boxes in 2012 – 11 years after their grandparents died. 

“(We) hadn’t heard their voices in over a decade,” she told USA TODAY. “It was the sweetest, most thoughtful gift I’ve ever received.”

The small-business owner donated 24 ornaments to Hospice Savannah for the second year last week. Many of Kelly’s customers, she said, use them to capture final holiday messages from their elderly or terminal relatives before they die.

“The first Christmas can be really tough without somebody, so being able to preserve those memories for them is something I love being able to do,” Kelly said.

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It’s a tradition the hospice hopes will continue year after year, volunteer coordinator Christy Fulcher said.

“People need things to hold on to,” Fulcher told USA TODAY. 

Last year, a dementia patient entered Hospice Savannah, Fulcher recalled. 

“He didn’t talk very much. but I got him to speak to me,” she said. 

"We love Savannah and her gift is so wonderful," Hospice Savannah volunteer coordinator Christy Fulcher said of receiving a donation of Holiday Voices recordable ornaments from business owner Savannah Kelly. 2022 marks the second year Kelly has donated ornaments to the Georgia-based hospice's families and patients.

He recorded an “I love you” message into the ornament for his wife, who was touched when she received it, according to Fulcher. The man died shortly after the holidays.

“(His wife) came in to make a donation a couple of months ago, and she saw me and started crying,” Fulcher said. “She hugged me and said, ‘You know, I (press) that button every day so I can hear him say I love you.’”

The battery-powered ornaments hold 20-second messages and come with a picture frame, according to Kelly. Keri Thomas of Austin, Texas, framed a photo of her dad, Bill Sanford, inside a red ornament that holds a voice message she couldn’t bear to let go of. 

“Christmas was one of his favorite times of year and his birthday’s in December, so it’s the time I think about him a lot,” Thomas said. “The holidays are just not complete when we don’t have him.”

In 2019, Austin-based Keri Thomas was experiencing her first Christmas without her father, Bill Sanford. She learned about Holiday Voices and saved one of her dad's voicemails, along with an image of him, inside a red recordable ornament.

Sanford, who died in Houston at age 64 not long after retiring from 30 years at ExxonMobil, struggled with multiple sclerosis and eventually a brain tumor, according to Thomas. She used her ornament to transfer a message from Sanford after he’d left an inpatient rehab following a stroke.

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“(It said), ‘thank you for coming, you’re always welcome to come, I really appreciate you being there,’” Thomas said.

Since Sanford’s death, it’s become a comfort to know he remains part of the Christmas tradition, said Thomas, who plans to record her 4-year-old son’s voice as an ornament keepsake.

“It feels special when we’re decorating, and it’s always got a prominent place on the front of the tree so I can listen to it all holiday season,” she said.

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