Karen Tomkins has always loved telling stories – and listening to them, too.
As an award-winning journalist, she has worked her way through local and national newsrooms around the country. Now, as a freelance broadcaster, writer and audio producer, she is working from home, spending time with her children and doing some of her most meaningful work: telling the stories of everyday people through her new business, The Treasure Vox.
The Treasure Vox
Through her work with The Treasure Vox, Karen visits with an interviewee – often an older person – and asks them to tell their life story. She records their conversation and then, using her audio production skillset, edits their interview before presenting the recording in a decorative box.
Irish Country Living asks Karen how she got the idea for such a niche business. “Well,” she says, “with my three children and work in journalism I always managed to balance the work-life thing as much as possible – but one thing I didn’t factor in was ill health. When you have three children, a rare disease and you’re working, you need to reconsider a few things.
“In 2018, I was in hospital a lot (I have Idiopathic Thrombocytopenic Purpura – ITP – which is a blood disorder),” she continues. ”With weekly visits to hospital for treatment and blood tests, it can be really difficult – even with the best employer in the world – to work that around your schedule. I live in Wexford; I attend Waterford so that’s not exactly close.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic reached Ireland, Karen was working in radio. As the message was sent out to the country to stay home and keep social distance, Karen realised she also needed to be following the advice she was giving each day.
“I have an underlying condition. I’ve had lots of treatment – I’ve had chemotherapy in the past for this, I’ve had lots of immunosuppressant treatment. So I kind of realised – while I was the journalist on the radio who’s immunocompromised – I’m one of those people; I shouldn’t be here.”
Karen decided to take a break from work and stayed home with her three children. Her husband, Shea, was working full-time from home, and she took on the day-to-day home schooling role. She loved the time she was spending with her kids, but she also felt her creative side was lacking. She was still doing freelance radio work, and thought she might start telling children’s stories.
“I got this idea of writing children’s stories, to help children who were home-schooling at the time; creating stories just for them,” she explains. “A lot of parents got in touch with me saying, ‘My child just recently got a diagnosis and they can’t see this person face to face – maybe you could write a story about them to cheer them up.’ It became this really fun thing for me – I guess it was an outlet.
“Those stories ran on WLR FM (in Waterford) for three seasons, and it was incredible because it won the IMRO radio award all three years for each series,” she adds. “It made me realise, it’s not all about being in the newsroom or being in the office.”
When things quietened down with COVID-19, Karen returned to the newsroom for a brief period. However, her health took a downturn and she was told she once again required regular treatment. Finally, in September 2021, she had her spleen removed in an attempt to help control her blood disorder. This was successful and put Karen into a sort-of ‘remission’.
“I gave myself lots of time to recover,” she says. “I suppose it made me re-evaluate things – I was so grateful for my health. I realised health and family has to come first.”
She had loved working on her children’s stories project, so Karen did work for RTÉ Junior radio, producing podcasts and stories. She felt she was finally doing the creative work she always wanted to do.
A spark of an idea
Karen had the idea for The Treasure Vox for a long time. She had always been interested in having everyday people share their life stories for recording. However, after her surgery, she says the idea got “louder and louder” in her head. Having been so successful in her children’s stories project; she felt brave enough to try and take on The Treasure Vox as a small business.
“I decided I would try this teeny tiny little business,” she says. “I was almost embarrassed to call it a business! I didn’t even have a website; I started advertising on Facebook marketplace (which was a wonderful tool, to be honest).
“I had done a lot of these life stories,” she continues. “I had recorded with my grandmother years ago, I had recorded with my mother in law – with family – so I knew it was something that would work. So around Christmas, I offered it to people as an idea for a Christmas gift. That was December, 2021, and I have not stopped since – it’s been incredible.”
A gift for generations to come
When Karen arrives at the home of an interviewee, she says it is an event.
“They have the table ready for me with tea and scones and they wear the best clothes on the day and treat it like a really big deal,” she says. “And they love being asked questions. I think in your family there are certain questions you mightn’t like to ask, or ones you never think to ask – or you assume you already know the answer.
“But, actually, when someone sits down and starts asking: who was your mam and dad, who were your grandparents, what was it like growing up and did you ever get into trouble as a kid, they just actually open up so much; it’s one of the most powerful things. Almost like a therapy session. It could take up to three hours and I’ve seen grown adults in their 80s and 90s become very emotional at certain points.”
Karen’s job is to guide interviewees along – to make it as easy a process as possible. But these interviews can sometimes put people in a place they haven’t been to in a long time. In this sense, though, the gift of a recorded life story is as much for the interviewee’s family as it is for the interviewee themselves.
“I get a lot of messages from people saying, ‘I’m not messaging you to book; I’m messaging you to say I wish I had done this when my parents (or grandparents) were alive; I wish I had known about this,’” she says.
Words of wisdom
When Karen finishes an interview, she always asks the same question: “What words of wisdom would you leave for your grandchildren, or great-grandchildren? Because, one day, they might get to listen to your voice in a totally different world.
“Those responses are always so amazing,” she says. “They’re giving messages to that generation and – to be honest – sometimes, even though life is so different, some things don’t change. Like how they were as teenagers or young mothers and how they look at life. Our outlook can be very similar, despite being from different generations.”
Memories to treasure
Karen feels especially lucky that, two years ago, she enlisted the help of her husband to interview her father, who sadly passed away in September 2022.
“It’s been a rollercoaster few months,” she says. “I am so grateful myself though that, when he was well, we recorded a life-story session with him. I asked my husband to do a lot of the interview – but I couldn’t help myself and came in near the end to ask some really poignant questions. I never listened to that recording until the day he died.
“I am so glad I did it now – and even though I’ve always understood the value of The Treasure Vox, in a weird way, I became my own customer recently and felt the comfort and power of a voice that I will always have to listen to, to laugh with and to remember forever.”
Prices start at €349 for interview packages