By Carolyn L. Barkley
Family reunions were not events that my immediate family attended when I was growing up. As a child, my mother had attended family reunions for her mother’s family, but as her mother died quite young, those ties slipped away over time. A “reunion” for my family, then, was Christmas dinner with my mother, father, grandfather, a cousin who was a half-generation between my mother and my grandfather, and me.
When I began researching other peoples’ lineages, I occasionally was invited to attend a friend’s family reunion to both share and collect family data. However it was not until the 1990s that, at the invitation of a newly-discovered cousin of my husband’s, we attended a Barkley family reunion in the Elm City, North Carolina, area. It was an opportunity to add to our knowledge of his family and to inquire about family photographs, Bibles, and grave site locations. I can vividly remember going into the community hall while my husband parked the car. I immediately rushed back out, declaring, “There’s a whole group of men here who look just like your father!” I later experienced a similar phenomenon when I attended a long-lost uncle’s 80th birthday party in southwestern New York. Although it was not a reunion per se, I encountered an entire room of people who looked like young pictures of my mother and her mother. The resemblance between a cousin about my son’s age was striking – notwithstanding the 12” height differential. From these several experiences, I came to appreciate what I had been missing.
Many families hold reunions, often annually. Others are planning their first event. The process can seem daunting. Luckily, there are many resources available for planning a successful reunion. Here are a few tips:
- Read as much as you can about how to plan a successful reunion. If you are not put off by the “Mr. Spiffy’s Reunion Planner” format, family-reunions.com provides step-by-step planning tips for your reunion. You may also want to check FamilyReunion.com, a social networking site for family reunion planners. The site provides “exclusive information, services, products, resources and links all designed to help millions of visitors and members connect with other family members and get the most from their family gathering events.” This site’s basic service is free of charge, with an available upgrade to “premium content” for a monthly fee. If your family is African-American, check out reunion information at afrigeneas.com.
In addition, you may want to read George G. Morgan’s Your Family Reunion: How to Plan It, Organize It, and Enjoy It (Ancestry, 2001); Cheryl Fall’s Family Reunion Planning Kit for Dummies (For Dummies, 2001); Krystal Williams’ How to Plan Your African-American Family Reunion (Citadel Press, 2000); or Phyllis A. Hackleman’s Reunion Planner (Genealogical Publishing Co., out-of-print but slated to be available this fall). Finally, check your local stores for a copy of Reunions magazine or check it out online at reunionsmag.com.
- Decide who will attend the reunion. If you define the scope of your event early, you will be able to make subsequent decisions more easily. Are you planning a reunion for just one family line or multiple lines? Will you invite only direct descendants and their immediate families, or will you include cousins? Begin a preliminary list of individuals who will receive invitations. Ask family members for contact information for each person on the list, as well as for additional names.
- Form a reunion committee. Now that you have determined the size of the reunion, check out Better Homes and Gardens online for size-specific planning information. Make sure that responsibility for each aspect of the event gets assigned to someone on the committee. Develop a theme – significant events in the family’s history, share-a-document or photograph, or other such topics will create excitement about the event. Make sure that committee members communicate, communicate, communicate!
- The reunion committee will want to decide when and where to hold the event. Summer and early fall are popular times as weather and travel pose fewer obstacles. Is there a specific location or historic site that is meaningful to the family? Is there a location that will make it more convenient for the majority of people to attend? Reunions are big business for many cities because they translate into hotel and convention center revenue. Contact the visitors’ bureau or convention center in the locality you are considering to see if they have planning guides, reunion packages, and other services available. You will also want to consider meeting space. Public libraries and community centers often provide meeting rooms either free of charge or at a minimal cost; hotels may provide a free meeting room based on the number of sleeping rooms reserved.
- The reunion committee will also want to develop a budget for the event. The number of people to be invited, the cost of the room for the event, catering (a good idea if many of those invited do not live locally), postage and printing, favors, decorations, name tags, etc. should all be considered. Consider charging a per-family registration fee to cover expenses.
- You may also want to advertise your reunion dates. Family Reunion List allows you to list your reunion free of charge. Publications such as New England Ancestors (New England Historic Genealogical Society) includes notices of upcoming reunions, as do sites accessible through Cyndi’s List. By making information about your reunion available, members of your family whom you may have “lost,” can learn of your event and attend.
- Make everyone welcome as they arrive at the reunion. Have greeters at a registration table to make introductions and provide directions and other information. Provide pre-printed name tags for all attendees. If your event includes individuals from multiple family lines, include the name of the progenitor on each name tag. Make sure to have a large genealogical chart posted on a wall with plenty of pens or pencils available so that information can be added or corrected during the event. If there are members of older generations attending, enlist some of the younger family members to interview them about family stories and events, perhaps videotaping the conversation.
- Follow up on the event. Correspond with those who attended to get their feedback and interest in future reunions. Consider creating a wiki or website for the family including the genealogical information, stories and pictures from the reunion, but don’t forget to also provide those memories in a way that older, non-technological generations may also enjoy them.
Family reunions are a wonderful way to connect – and stay connected – with your family. Check to see if there is a reunion scheduled for your family. If not, consider planning one yourself. Everyone will be glad you did.