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Family Reunions give everyone a sense of belonging

“Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.” ~Jane Howard

For both Ruth Samuels and Desi Wright, family reunions are all about connecting — with their loved ones, their heritage, and themselves. “My mother didn’t like to be around family, so it’s important to me that my kids know their family,” says Ruth, membership executive with Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma. “I want them to know their heritage and understand where they came from.”

“Family reunions are a way to find out where I came from and find out why I am the way I am,” says Desi, office manager and events planner for the Tulsa office of the Association of Faith Churches and Ministers (AFCM). “It’s a connection to myself. It’s also great for my kids. It gives a sense of belonging.”


Whether the family reunion is a small, backyard affair, or a lavish event at resort hotel, planning is a must. Both Ruth’s and Desi’s families share the burden of planning reunions by passing the torch from one family to another. “Each family, or sometimes an individual in a family, takes on the planning,” says Ruth. “When it’s our turn, one of my sisters and I do it together.”

Both Ruth and Desi agree that you can’t please everyone in choosing the date or venue. “You can try to get everyone’s opinion, but then you finally just have to plan it,” says Desi.

The Internet can be an invaluable tool in planning your family reunion. One of the most popular Internet sites,, even offers family reunion planning software.

Dollars and Sense

When the Kaseman side of Desi’s family gets together, relatives travel from around the country to the community of whomever planned the event that year. The person doing the planning estimates the total cost of the event such as hotel, catered meals, amusement park tickets, etc. and divides it up among the families. “Each family can then decide if they can participate or not,” says Desi. “Sometimes we’ll plan two events for the same day so people can choose, such as Silver Dollar City, or a day by the pool. If a family can’t swing the cost of the amusement park, or physically can’t handle the outing, they can visit with other family members staying behind.” suggests holding an auction or raffle at your reunion to help fund the following year’s reunion. Each family member provides items for auction, such as white elephant gifts, surprise bags, homemade crafts, and baked goods or desserts.

Location, Location, Location

The size of the reunion and the budget can help determine where a reunion is held. State and local parks, campgrounds and hotels are popular sites, while theme parks, resort hotels, dude ranches and cruises are fun possibilities.
Desi’s family is partial to family reunion cruises. “We’ve found that a cruise is often a lot more economical that going somewhere and paying for hotel, food, etc.,” says Desi. “Cruises can be as cheap as $299 per person and include activities and food.”

The family often embarks from Galveston because it’s a relatively easy drive for everyone. According to Desi, if you choose to try a cruise, a travel agent “is a must.”

Ruth’s family reunions are so large that indoor venues are often too expensive, so the families generally gather at lakes or parks. “But the August heat is hard on the older people,” says Ruth, “We rent big fans to keep cool.”

Another favorite for Desi’s family are destination reunions. One of the most successful occurred the year Desi planned a family gathering in Lindsborg, Kansas. “It’s a Swedish community,” says Desi. “My grandmother was of Swedish descent. It was a weekend trip and wasn’t very expensive. Lindsborg has amazing shops and we planned dinner at restaurant that served Scandinavian food.”

Good Eats

Food is always a big part of any family reunion, often with traditional favorites showing up year after year.
“At our reunions each family is asked to bring enough food for their own family—main dish, side dish and dessert,” says Ruth. All the food is then put out potluck style. “I always make baked beans and my sister does deviled eggs.”

When Desi’s family serves potluck, each family brings a dish to pass along with its recipe so everyone can recreate that special family reunion treat at home.

Desi recommends catered food if the family reunion is held at a hotel. “Often hotels will throw in a meeting room for free if you ask,” says Desi, adding that then the family has a place to enjoy the catered meal and later hang out and visit.

Laugh and Play

Sharing photographs, watching old family movies or videos, talking, eating and laughing seem to be part of all family reunions. But both Desi and Ruth’s families have also planned more structured events.

“My aunts always have a talent night,” says Desi. “They love to sing and love to make their kids sing or recite poetry. We usually have a program one night where everyone shows off their talents. We also have a birthday night where we celebrate everyone’s birthday with birthday cake and ice cream. ”

Ruth loves to involve the children in activities. “We’ll have tug-of-war competitions, three-legged races, karaoke, bubble gum blowing contests,” says Ruth. “I buy lots of ribbons so every kid gets a ribbon. Everybody wins!”

“We like to give all the kids disposable cameras and let them take any pictures they want,” says Desi. “It’s so much fun to see what they come up with! One year our youngest was still in a stroller and she got lots of pictures of people’s bottoms!”

Additionally, when Desi’s family makes a destination trip, they like to get matching hats or t-shirts to distinguish family members. “It’s nothing crazy, just fun,” says Desi.

Family Story Time

Both Desi and Ruth feel that family stories are the highlight of family reunions.

“My grandma was a great storyteller,” says Desi. “She made us excited and curious about our history. She would tell stories about how her family or my grandpa’s family came through Ellis Island, what it was like meeting my grandpa, getting married and starting a family. My Mom and her sisters would tell us what it was like growing up in the ‘50s.”

“The older people in my family always like to tell stories,” says Ruth. “My kids can’t fathom not having indoor plumbing. My son’s response was, ‘So there was no Xbox either?’ One year someone told a story about my Dad’s grandmother and how she always played favorites. They said my Dad was one of her favorites and he always got the biscuit with the apple butter on it. I love it because my kids hear stories about their great-great grandmother that I would never have been able to tell them.”

Ruth is pleased that at the last family gathering they had the foresight to videotape a lot of the older people telling family stories. “We will always have those stories,” says Ruth.

Tolling the Bell

The loss of a family member can make family reunions especially poignant. Ruth’s stepmother, Maurice Hastings, passed away this year. According to Ruth, Maurice loved family reunions. She also brought two of the family’s favorite foods to reunions, chicken spaghetti and German chocolate cake. “My Dad called her cake ‘German shepherd cake,’” says Ruth. It was homemade. Nobody thought to get the recipe from her,” says Ruth regretfully. “She was a very busy, hardworking woman with a great sense of humor. We’re all going to miss her sparkling eyes.”

Whether their family reunions take place on a cruise ship or at a local park, the important thing for both Ruth and Desi are the relationships. “I’m not always going to be here,” says Ruth. “But my kids will always have their family. They will have those connections that last forever.”