Reunions bring families together

The Baltimore Sun

Benetta Thomas-Jones still remembers the day she first realized the importance of keeping her family's history alive.

"My daughter was home in the summer 2006 from North Carolina Central University in Durham, N.C., and I was talking about Aunt Pat and Aunt Bobbie," recalls Thomas-Jones of the conversation with her daughter Janay. "She looked at me and said, 'I don't know who those people are.' She did not know my family."

That mother-daughter chat motivated the 47-year-old personnel security specialist at Fort Meade to take on the challenging task of planning her family's summer reunion in Baltimore.

The Thomas-Ellis reunion in June drew about 60 relatives -- a far cry from the 125 people she had expected -- from Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Mississippi and Maryland.

Still, Thomas-Jones was pleased with the family reunion that this year expanded from its familiar backyard surroundings.

"They thought they'd come to a hotel, go to a picnic, go to dinner and go home," Thomas-Jones says of the event-filled weekend. "But I had planned card parties of spades and bid whist in the hospitality suite of the hotel. Bingo, the kids had crafts and a swim party, and they were playing horseshoes and volleyball on Saturday morning.

"It went very, very well," she says.

"You need to know your family. Elders are out there with all this history and knowledge, and one by one that knowledge and history is going with them," says Thomas-Jones. Younger generations "need to know who they are, and where they came from."

In an era when families are fragmented by distance, the African-American reunion is helping to strengthen the extended family bond. Many of these gatherings expand beyond the down-home picnics with Grandma's potato salad to include hotel banquets with dinner and dancing.

"Summer is a big time for family reunions. It's popular for African-American family reunions," says Ione Vargus, the founder and chairwoman of the Family Reunion Institute at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Vargus says that, proportionately speaking, African-Americans have more family reunions than other groups.

"The major significance of the family reunion for African-Americans is that it's serving as a catalyst to bring back the extended family in a new way," explains Vargus.

"We're moving away from the picnic, the cookout. The African-American family reunion extending to two to three days really has to do with people coming from across the country. It's made like a vacation and has become institutionalized."

Undoubtedly, the hotel and tourism industry has taken notice that the African-American family reunion is big business, with convention and visitors' bureaus promoting historic and cultural sites dedicated to such events.

"It has become very big commercially. The reason: The reunions you see fill hotels in the summer when revenues are down. Family reunions are filling that void," says Vargus.

Family business

Lou Fields, owner of BBH Tours, says his business is evidence that family reunions have a big impact on summer tourism.

"You are looking at millions of dollars being spent in Baltimore," says Fields, who does business with as many as two dozen family reunions a year. "They go to the [National] Great Blacks in Wax Museum, the Reginald F. Lewis [Museum], and they go to the Inner Harbor.

"African-American family reunions want to venture out in the neighborhoods," he says.

With the majority of these travelers visiting relatives or friends, it's no surprise that each summer, families across the country pack up their bags and drive, fly, bus, or ride trains to their hometowns or to centrally located cities to celebrate family through fellowship and food.

After all, these reunions are a chance to socialize and play catch up with seldom-seen relatives.

But planning a successful family reunion isn't all fun and games. It's hard work that requires extensive research, patience and dedication.

"It's not an easy thing to do," says Kimberly Houck of Edgewood, 27, who spent more than six months planning her family's reunion at the Inner Harbor. "You can't go into it thinking it's a piece of cake. You have to be ready for anything."

Despite 10 months of planning, Thomas-Jones encountered a few stumbling blocks of her own. She had to go solo on cooking food for a family picnic June 16 after two helpers were no-shows.

"I started at 7 o'clock Friday night and got done at 8:15 Saturday morning [with] 2 1/2 hours of sleep," says Thomas-Jones of her cooking for the picnic, which was held at Oregon Ridge Park, Beach and Conference Center in Cockeysville.

And an unexpected passing of a relative a short time earlier slashed attendance by more than half, resulting in "a ton" of leftover alcohol and other beverages and food that many family members packed in coolers and took home with them.

Of the outcome, she added, "I'm really, really happy, but I'm glad I'm not doing it next year."

The Mitchell family reunion held in Baltimore last month drew 57 family members from Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, and New Jersey, says Francine Verdine, secretary on this year's reunion planning committee.

The gathering included excursions to the Inner Harbor and the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum, as well as a banquet, dance and a church service at the BWI Marriott at the close of the reunion.

"Overall, I think it went really well," says Verdine. "The biggest thing about the reunion was connecting our young people and them learning the history of our family."

For the Mitchell family, the gift of the reunion rested in the seven generations of the family represented.

"We had the youngest -- my dad's great granddaughter -- celebrating her second birthday on Saturday. One of the oldest there -- a daughter of my dad's sister -- was 68, and we had people of all ages in between," says Verdine, who gained unexpected insight into her family's history during the reunion.

"My dad was 52 when I was born, so my childhood memories of him were as an old man," she says about her late father, Nathaniel Mitchell. "To have my dad's nieces tell stories of him as a young man is hilarious -- I never knew that part of him. That's the benefit -- my kids hearing stories of my dad, and some stories I'm hearing for the first time."

Deborah M. Daniels, special events director for the African-American history and culture magazine American Legacy, shared her insights into family reunion planning at a recent workshop hosted by Amtrak in Washington.

Travel planning

She suggests that those aiming to sidestep summer traffic headaches look into booking group travel. Amtrak offers groups of 20 or more discounts of up to 20 percent.

And while Daniels hasn't seen airlines negotiate on fares, she says they do try to accommodate for block seating.

"Airlines do make a courtesy effort that the family is together, and they try to coordinate" flight arrival times, Daniels explains.

She says that an important first step in the process is establishing planning committees -- including appointing a host family or coordinator and selecting a treasurer.

Why? Events, decorations, lodging and reunion mementos all cost money, so it's a good idea to have a sense of the budget from the beginning.

Ask Thomas-Jones, who learned this lesson the hard way.

"The initial budget was $3,000, which included the family picnic, food, supplies to set up the dinner dance, taking the kids to the Inner Harbor and roller-skating," says Thomas-Jones, adding that as the family reunion coordinator, she took on the organizing and the expense.

She quickly blew her budget, with expenses jumping to almost $5,000 by the close of the reunion. "I get bright ideas and start spending," says Thomas-Jones.

However, more than $2,500 of her out-of-pocket costs went toward rental fees for the banquet, she explained.

"Set a budget, and stick to it," she advises. And don't forget the power of negotiating to cut costs.

"When researching costs for various budget items ... negotiate, negotiate, negotiate!" Daniels says.

Offering breakfast and dinner instead of three meals a day can save money that can be allocated elsewhere.

Thomas-Jones, for instance, bargained to get Pepsi products -- sodas such as Pepsi and Mountain Dew -- donated for her reunion in exchange for the marketing.

"They know the products will be used at the reunion while promoting the legacy of the African-American family reunion," she says.

Thomas-Jones solicited the help of her uncle, who works for Pepsi in Pennsylvania, to get product placement at her reunion.

But Daniels says anyone can negotiate similar deals with businesses. She advises reunion planners to contact their area Minority Chamber of Commerce to get discount coupons for restaurants.

Or, Daniels adds, call the consumer bureaus or community relations' offices of beverage distributors.

"And don't forget local distributors -- they may not give you [the product] for free, but maybe they will give it at a discount," in exchange for ad placement in the family reunion journal, she says.

The cost for the Mitchell family reunion was estimated at $5,000 to $6,000, covering the banquet hall, food, museum visit, and administrative costs for mailings throughout the year, Verdine says. The costs were divvied up among the family members in attendance.

Advance planning

With summertime being one of the busiest times for reunions, it's also important to pick a date and location early -- at least a year in advance.

That's what the Mitchell family reunion planning committee did, says Verdine.

The committee started planning this year's reunion in July last year.

It's during the business meeting at the end of each reunion that the next planning committee is selected and the groundwork officially begins for the following year, she says.

This is also the time to start focusing on who is invited.

But how do you compile the information of so many family members who are often spread across the country?

"Make a master list by using older family members as a source of information, look through family albums or old letters, or take out a personal ad in local newspapers telling of the reunion to track 'lost' family members," Daniels says.

For Kimberly Houck, exploiting technology has proved the best way to reach out to relatives scattered across Maryland, the Carolinas, Kentucky, Georgia and New York.

As the coordinator for the Marshall family reunion, she tapped her husband, Mark, to develop a Web site to help everyone keep in touch.

The site includes a message board where family members can chat about reunion ideas and share news of family births or engagements, a photo gallery and a Marshall family history page.

"That has been very effective," says Houck. "This way, no matter what state you're living in, or if you're not on the planning committee, you can still put in your two cents."

Raising funds

Some families sell raffle tickets, sponsor casino trips, or sell plate dinners to raise funds. Others, like Houck's family, paid dues of $60 for adults and $30 for seniors to cover banquet costs that could otherwise eat away at the budget.

And when planning, don't forget about the younger family members. Make sure to organize intergenerational activities such as dances and card tournaments.

Or as Daniels suggests, holding an "elder circle," where older family members can share stories with the younger children "to foster a sense of family and continuing the legacy."

Thomas-Jones hopes next year's reunion will follow through with plans for "Dottie's Baddest Brim" contest, so all ages can learn a bit of family history.

The contest would commemorate Dorothy "Aunt Dot" Ellis (who passed away in December at the age of 71) and her love of hats, said Thomas-Jones.

The contest would "bring the memory back so others don't forget they were here," she says.

Looking back, Thomas-Jones acknowledges that planning her family's reunion was a long and arduous process. But in the end, she said, it was all worthwhile.

"It's been a memorable adventure to bring everybody together and remind people where they came from and where they're going. Planning the whole reunion was for the good of the entire family," she says.

Tips on planning reunions

Benetta Thomas-Jones shares a few lessons she learned while planning her family's reunion in Baltimore.

1. Set a budget and stick to it! Although Thomas-Jones didn't follow her own advice, she urges others to stick to a budget to keep expenses from spiraling out of control.

2. Start planning early. "At least a year in advance, get everything secured in writing, such as the hotel and catering quote," she stresses, "because during the summertime everything books up fast."

3. Tap family resources. Save time, money, and reduce stress by recruiting family members to help out. "I called and asked an uncle who worked for Pepsi to donate. He volunteered six cases of Pepsi products," says Thomas-Jones.

4. Have a vision of what you want to do. From the crown-emblazoned reunion T-shirts to handcrafted tiaras made by the youngest family members, Thomas-Jones set her "Family of Kings and Queens" royalty theme early in the process.

5. Adopt creative fundraising strategies. Sponsor casino trips, bake sales, car washes in the early planning stages to avoid having to "come out of pocket" down the road. "That will definitely defray some of the costs," she says.

Cost of a reunion

Benetta Thomas-Jones budget for family reunion:

Postage, copies, paper and envelopes: $322

Picnic site rental: $275

Horseshoes and volleyball rental: $30

Food for picnic: $398

Trophies (For the contests, that never got used): $65

Refreshments (beer, alcohol and sodas): $325

Hotel dinner/dance: $2,508

Hospitality room setup and rental: $185

Hotel room (My room and one other): $528

Gas (running back and forth to Baltimore): $200 Total: $4,836

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