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Program Helps Dig Into Family History

The Grandparents Project in Michigan unearths generational treasures

Delving into the depths of genealogy, Kristin Thomas grasped what it takes to unlock a family legacy.

"The most important thing that I learned were some of the tools and techniques that it takes to trace back your own history," says Thomas, 23, who earned a bachelor's degree in psychology at the University of Michigan in June.

See also: Begin building your family tree.

Along with her maternal grandfather, Janek "John" Wrobel, she spent two days this summer reconnecting with her roots at a free workshop called The Grandparents Project. Her sister, Gina Thomas, 25, a registered nurse, joined them for a day. Multiple families are completing the program this summer at The Polish Mission in Orchard Lake, Mich.

The project is an initiative by the mission's genealogy arm, the Polonica Americana Research Institute, which opened in October 2010 to bring together three area ethnic groups: Jewish, German and Polish residents with roots in Poland. While the elders share rich oral traditions and practices, the younger people help them access the Internet and scan old photographs. Both jot down memories of their own grandparents.

"You discover things about your relatives," says Wrobel, 86, a retired Detroit police officer who watched his granddaughter Kristin review online census information, military records and immigration data. "With the right information, you'll get some answers."

The project is funded by The Polish Mission and a grant from the Michigan Humanities Council, an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The art of storytelling

Many of the workshop's participants have expressed a desire to gain more insight into their ancestry, says certified genealogist Ceil Jensen, who expects 96 families to participate by summer's end.

Their pursuits stem from several motivations, Jensen explains, "including the desire to carve out a place for one's family in the larger historical picture, a sense of responsibility to preserve the past for future generations and a sense of self-satisfaction in accurate storytelling."

Educating grandchildren about their ancestors' hardships factors into the equation, says Dana Barrett, 63, of Macomb, Mich. She attended the workshop with her granddaughter, Olivia, 12, and her daughter, Barbara Fontana, 42, of Algonac, Mich., who has been looking into their heritage for 12 years. Barrett's maternal and paternal grandparents came from Poland.

Next: Bringing family trees to life. >>

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