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More Than Ever, Americans Connect With Family Reunions - 2003-06-08

Now more than ever, Americans are connecting with their families. According to the Travel Industry Association of America, there were 200,000 family reunions in the United States last year. In the last two decades, the Internet has made it easier to find distant relatives, and organize such gatherings.

In 1998, Jakie Utley, of Jackson, Tennessee, revived a tradition her grand uncle had started in the 1980s, when he hosted annual family reunions in his farm."My grandfather was one of 11 children. The last of his siblings died in 1998, and it occurred to me that if we did not start having reunions again, we would never know the rest of our family," he says.

Although family reunions have been held in the United States since the 1880s, they've become increasingly popular in recent years. Edith Wagner is editor of a magazine called Reunions. "American families are scattered all over the country, and often times have difficulties finding the time when everybody can get together," she says. "With reunions, families can establish a special day that has nothing at all to do with holidays, and make it a point to get together as a group. Some family reunions are just the immediate family: mom, dad, their children, and grandchildren. Many more reunions, however, are extended families. Those can be very large reunions, where hundreds of people is not unusual."

Ms. Wagner advises that large family reunions need a lot of careful and thoughtful planning. "The person planning for the family reunion does have to think about all of the different age groups, all of the different interests, and abilities of everybody in the family. There are lots of families that use the family reunion to work on their family history," she says. "There are many more families, now than ever, are taking their families to where their families originated either in Europe or Africa. Not everyone can afford this kind of traveling, but it is something for family members to look forward to and save for."

Jakie Utley has organized her family gathering in Jackson, Tennessee for the past 5 years. She says this year's reunion of about 70 family members will be held on a weekend in July. "We have a Thursday evening get-together for the people who come in early. We have a Friday night ice cream social," she says. "On Saturday night, we have a formal banquet at one of our local hotels, and there we all get together. We have someone of each branch of the family who does a family report of what's happened in their families since the last reunion. We have awards given to people who had traveled the farthest, who have the most children with them, who have married the longest and the most newly wed. We also do a memorial service, reading the names of all our family members who passed away starting with our great grandparents."

Edith Wagner of Reunions magazine says family gatherings can be organized in a variety of ways, big or small, formal or casual. "For example, lots of people visualize a family reunion as a picnic in the park where everybody brings something, and you really do not spend much. Somebody brings the softball and the baseball bat, and there is some place for young kids to swim and people bring their luncheons and sit under shady trees," she says.

For help in planning family reunions, people can get advice from magazines, books, and other sources. Jakie Utley finds the Internet very helpful. "Most of the people in the family have at least someone in their branch of the family with a computer and Internet access. So, I tend to send out e-mails several times a month in preparation for the reunion. When we start planning decorations, we bounce ideas back and forth even though we do not live in the same city," she says.

The cost of some family reunions can be daunting because of food, hotel, travel, and other expenses. To help raise money, many families have fundraising events or hold auctions and sell family memoirs or cookbooks. Jakie Utley says long-range planning is essential to make family get-togethers a success, both socially and financially. "I start preparing for one reunion as soon as the other one is over. So, it is a year round activity, but I enjoy doing it. It is not a burden; it is not a chore," she says.

Reunion magazine editor Edith Wagner says although people are busy with their daily lives, they're increasing becoming interested in attending family reunions as a way to reconnect and rejuvenate.