|by Edith Wagner|
If you're thinking about organizing a family reunion or are already working on one, you're in good company. It is estimated that over 200,000 families, each averaging 50 persons hold reunions each year.
Organizing a family reunion is a gift. It is an unselfish commitment to your family to stay in touch and make an effort to be among kin. Family reunions are times for hugs and kisses, smiles and warmth. They provide a feeling of belonging not only to the larger family of man but to the family of (fill in your family reunion name here). Family reunions are great adventures of intricate detail and opportunities to savor history and legend. They are also ideal occasions to mend fences and build bridges. Traditions flourish once your reunion is established. Commitment to take responsibility is a special gift to your family.
Family Reunions Have Many Purposes
The purpose of having reunions varies. A study by Reunions magazine and the Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management Department of East Stroudsburg (PA) University discovered that 57% of all reunions were organized to help keep members in touch while over 28% wanted children to learn about their family heritage. Other goals were to get everyone together before a family elder dies or to mark a special birthday, anniversary or holiday. Some people don't even remember or know how their reunion started but recall attending them as children. Amy Barlow's Mellenbruch Family Reunion started when her great-great-great grandfather, H. F. Mellenbruch, left a letter expressing a wish that his descendants would meet regularly. Mellenbruchs have granted that wish they celebrated their 100th reunion in 1997.
Your reunion is not at all unusual if it starts as an innocent comment at a funeral that you should start meeting to celebrate life under happier circumstances. Reunions can be compared to weddings and funerals except for one important fact those events focus on the celebration or remembrance of just one person. Reunions celebrate everyone and the whole family. If a reunion is a whole new idea for your family, some members may not be ready. If so, don't give up. Delay the idea or continue with willing members. Reluctant members may join a future reunion.
There is no definition of family for the purpose of reunion except a group of people with the desire to spend time together. However, for the purpose of sending out invitations, you must decide who is family for this occasion. Is it thousands of progeny descended from a common ancestor who arrived in the US in 18-something? Is it the descendants of brothers and sisters, their children and their children's children? Is it all the cousins of a generation and their families? Is it the immediate three generations of grandma, grandpa, their children and grandchildren? Is it everyone with the same name? Or is it something in common like the same parents whether by birth, marriage or adoption? Some genealogists may differ with these loose definitions of family, but for your reunion it is completely up to you.
Reunion sounds like and is a great idea! If you volunteer to be in charge, step forward with your whole heart and soul, but it's best to not do it alone. Organizing a reunion by yourself can be lonely and may not get the results you want. Asking for volunteers and involving others as early as possible means getting help ranging from moral support to taking charge of details large and small. Early support should also include contributions to defray start-up phone, printing and postage costs. It might look formidable if you're new to reunion organizing. Who will pay? When, where and how will everyone get there on time and happy? What will they do when they get there? Lots of questions need answers. Enough time is crucial. You must first decide when and where to hold the events, and then deal with a myriad of details.
Delegate and Conquer
Recruit all the help you can to lighten your load and strengthen "ownership" of and commitment to the reunion. Ask members what they like to do and focus on it. This doesn't mean everyone must be in total agreement developing a new idea takes time and patience. Consider committees. One committee can find your reunion location and accommodations, others can concentrate on the program, fundraising, food, scholarships and cleanup.
The art of delegation was important for Rosa Thomson, organizer of her Thomson Family Reunion. She identified the special talents and skills of each family member. Showered with "yes" answers, Rosa completed projects on time and on budget.
How Long Are Reunions?
Over 70% of respondents to the Reunions magazine/East Stroudsburg University study reported devoting two or more days to their reunion. Typically reunions start on Friday and last through Sunday, though some families stay longer. One whole week is not unusual. If members travel any distance, a longer stay makes the effort worthwhile with time to visit and relax before the return journey.
The Seideman Family Reunion in Newburg, Wisconsin, has grown to an annual average of 400-600 descendants of Friedrich Seideman. They require a couple of days to set up a barn filled with a fascinating collection of family and farming history as well as games, a talent show, contests and food. They celebrated their 65th consecutive reunion in July 1998.
And How Often Should You Meet?
Reunion frequency is an individual decision. Reunions are not inexpensive so time to save is essential. A surprising 46% of families make the reunion an annual event while 28% choose two years between reunions. The ones who wait five years may increase frequency for special reasons like significant anniversaries or members being ill and unlikely to make the next reunion. Frequency is also a serious consideration for the reunion organizer. One year passes rapidly while two years allow for some extra breathing room.
If you are starting your very first reunion it is not unwise to begin a year and a half to two years in advance. Seasons matter do you have skiers? campers? sun-seekers? school children? Plan accordingly. A majority of all family reunions occur in June, July and August. Consider three-day school holidays at other times of year for variety; skiing over Martin Luther King Day or Presidents Day weekends.
Set your first reunion date to draw as many people as possible. Give everyone plenty of time to save both vacation time and money for the trip. Your reunion date might coincide with an important family event. You can choose a date arbitrarily. Or offer choices with a commitment to abide by the consensus of the group.
Avoid a blanket request for dates. Don't ask 50 people to suggest dates because you'll get 50 dates and still no consensus. If, on the other hand, you suggest a choice of say, Thanksgiving or Fourth of July weekend, you'll know your majority right away.
A convenient location is the most prominent factor to choosing where to have your reunion cited by almost 20% of the Reunions magazine/East Stroudsburg University study respondents. Almost as many respondents cited reasonable lodging cost, then reasonable travel cost and availability of recreational activities. Other responses included the following: the same place every year, a variety of accommodations and activities, or shopping and destinations that match a theme. All families try to find special places ranging from their own backyard to historical family homesteads or even a dream locale.
Some reunions number hundreds of members. They meet more comfortably in hotels, resorts and even on cruise ships. The possibilities are infinite smaller groups may be more comfortable at inns, ranches, condos, villas, bed and breakfasts or campgrounds.
It's not unusual for a reunion group to choose a place they've not been to. Convention and visitors or tourism bureaus are eager to convince reunions to visit their areas. They have hot local information, contacts with facilities and activities and in many cases, a plethora of planning services. Also check out the directories of hundreds of reunion-friendly places in Reunions magazine and Reunions Workbook Reunion Resources. Many of the listings are just a click away with direct Internet links (www.reunionsmag.com).
About the Author
Edith Wagner is the editor of Reunions magazine, author of Reunions Workbook and Catalog and The Family Reunion Sourcebook (Lowell House, Los Angeles) in bookstores now. She collects material for this column and Reunions magazine from family reunions and invites you to share your reunion ideas, concerns or questions. You can e-mail Wagner at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the Reunions magazine Web site.