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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. >>

"A lot of young people don't understand what it meant for the immigrants, whether you're Polish, German, Italian or whatever — the struggles that people had to endure coming to a foreign land and what it was like. Some of them didn't even speak the language," says Barrett, who worked as an assistant in a financial management firm.

Bringing family trees to life

Stella Slimko, 72, a retired contracts administrator from Lake Orion, Mich., has been searching since 2003 for information about all four grandparents, who emigrated from Poland. Three months of research at The Polish Mission helped her discover more than she was able to find on her own.

In July, she wanted to share that experience with her grandchildren and her daughter, Patty Bianchi, 44, during their visit from Hopkinton, Mass. The youngsters — Francesca, 10; Julian, 7; and Camille, 5 — enjoyed The Polish Mission's theatrical display of sculptural figures clad in costumes from various Polish regions and different eras.

While they were reluctant to participate at first, that changed when genealogists explained the concept of a family tree. "They gave us a beautiful archival case to keep our documentation," Bianchi says. "They had the kids select their favorite photo from their grandmother's collection, worked with them to scan it in, and let them decorate [the case] as they saw fit."

For Sharon Deceuninck, the research is just beginning. "I asked my granddaughter to tag along with me for two days" to the workshop, says Deceuninck, 67, of Shelby Township, Mich., a retired school district secretary. Her parents were born in Poland and arrived in the United States when they were about 2 years old.

The project turned out to be very enlightening for Deceuninck's granddaughter, Nicole Wren, 18. "I'm now able to share these stories and findings about my great-grandparents with my cousins, my aunts and uncles and — even one day — when I have my own family."

You may also like: DNA genealogy. >>

Susan Kreimer is a writer in New York.

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