The Family Reunion Planner
Special events call for something equally special that will help create lasting memories as well as generate excitement and good vibes during the gathering. A signature drink, a commemorative T-shirt or a personalized game can make a party, family reunion or other get-together feel unique and remind people of the great time that was had later on.
“When you go to Europe, you have to come home with at least a magnet as a memory of that trip,” says Shamele Jordon, a professional genealogist and member of the Family Reunion Institute advisory board. “Having that memento is like a little memory in a box.”
Closer to home, attendees at everything from reunions to neighborhood barbecues and pool parties like souvenirs too, and they enjoy distinctive experiences. Amp it up with great decorations like a balloon arch (you can purchase one or find directions to make it yourself online), fun treats from a cotton candy maker or chocolate fountain, and mix up a great playlist to keep the music going.
Need more inspiration for your gathering? Here are nine ideas:
1. Create a map.
If it’s a large gathering, post a map for display so that guests can mark where they live across the country or around the world. Maps are terrific icebreakers if people haven’t seen each other in a while or there are newcomers to the group. Families can also indicate where early ancestors were born and where they may have immigrated to and settled.
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2. Mix up a signature drink.
Offer a special cocktail, along with a nonalcoholic version. It can play off the theme of your party, such as a piña colada for a beach party; your location, like a Long Island iced tea; or your family or company name.
3. Put together a time capsule.
For a recurring event, create a time capsule to be opened in the future and involve guests of all ages. Experts and families suggest sending out a questionnaire ahead of time so that attendess can help decide what memorabilia to include to represent the year, such as a playlist of songs; photographs of people, pets or hometowns; or an item that reflects the group. You’ll find lots of tutorials on YouTube
4. Give out party favors or create commemorative items.
T-shirts, pens, mugs and other mementos are a big hit with guests of all ages and a great way to memorialize an event. Tyrone P. Dumas, 69, of Milwaukee, had a quilt made from dozens of T-shirts from his McNair Brazil Scott family reunions. He displays it every year to many oohs and aahs. The Roby family designs a new T-shirt for each reunion, and this year organizers also decided to distribute water bottles emblazoned with the family name, says Gertrude Roby, 84, of Kansas City, Kansas.
5. Make a cookbook.
If your family or group is known for its special recipes, but they’re handwritten on index cards or scattered among lots of different cooks, consider creating a cookbook. You can use websites such as HeritageCookbook.com or photo-book sites like Mixbook and Shutterfly, which let you add photographs and stories. “Food is a centerpiece of every family reunion, and every family has their secret or favorite recipes,” says Stu Pollard, cofounder of Reunacy, a website that helps people plan and manage group gatherings. “I remember my grandmother made this amazing loaf of bread. I always think I should have gotten that recipe.”
6. Rent a photo booth.
Candid photographs are a fun way to document your gathering. For a few hundred dollars, you can rent a photo booth that will instantly produce images on photo strips. Alternatively, DIYers can make a photo booth by designating a photographer with an instant print camera, or setting a tripod-based camera on an automatic setting in a nook stocked with props like hats, funny glasses, boas, wigs or signs with festive sayings. Another option is to make disposable cameras available to guests and collect them after the party. Then you can print and distribute the photos, post them online or make a photo book as a keepsake.
7. Do some storytelling.
Everyone has a story to tell — and stories are essential to preserving the legacy of your family or group. Dumas, who is helping to plan his extended family’s reunion, is hoping his cousin Lisa McNair will discuss her new book, Dear Denise: Letters to the Sister I Never Knew, which will be published in September. Lisa’s older sister, Denise McNair, was one of four girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. “We have some cultural rights significance in our family,” Dumas says. “So, we will draw on the personal history of the family members in the civil rights movement. We have a whole slew of young people and family who have never met any of their cousins, so it really is a familiarization with your lineage.”
Families, groups and organizations can preserve their stories on their own websites, create their own books through websites like Legacy Books and Storyworth, or be interviewed by professional ghostwriters at Story Terrace. For one year’s family reunion souvenir, Jordon created historical postcards featuring photos of ancestors, an 1867 marriage certificate, an 1870 census record and a slave bill of sale. It cost less than $75 using an online printer.
8. Give awards.
Hand out trophies or certificates recognizing people’s achievements, such as wearing the most theme-worthy outfit, busting the most impressive dance moves or earning a promotion at work. When Roby’s family gather next year for their reunion, they plan to give legacy awards to family members following in the footsteps of deceased relatives, such as the best athlete or the most generous person.
9. Hold a raffle.
Who doesn’t like winning a prize? At their family reunion this summer, the Roby family raffled off several themed baskets made by Roby’s niece, Linda. The barbecue basket, for instance, included several sauces and spices, an apron and more. Proceeds from raffles can go to a favorite charity or a relative in need or be used to fund a future family reunion.
Sheryl Jean is a contributing writer who covers aging, business, technology, travel, health and human-interest stories. A former reporter for several daily metropolitan newspapers, she has also written for the Chicago Tribune and The Dallas Morning News as well as the American Heart Association’s website.