Planning a children-friendly family reunion: create a gathering to remember

WHEN George Wallace, the renowned comedian, helped plan a recent family reunion, planners came up with a career day, among other events, for the children. They wanted to ensure that the children, as carriers of the torch of the future, enjoy themselves as much as older participants.

"On career day, we had six Super Bowl tings on display," says Wallace, chairman of the 2005 Grand Family Reunion, which took place June 30 to July 3 in Atlanta. "We have microbiologists, funeral directors, deans of universities, motivational speakers, educators, NFL officials and lawyers in the family. Our goal is to let the children know that they too can accomplish great things. We also want to encourage family members to help and network with each another."

Children-friendly family reunions represent a grand departure from the past. Back in the day, children used to be an afterthought, relegated to the outskirts of the event, while grown folks sat around the backyard in lounge chairs reminiscing about the past. More often than not, children rebelled, wreaking havoc on the event and spoiling the fun for just about everyone.

But now, savvy reunion planners and organizers, like Wallace, have begun weaving events for children and teens into the fabric of reunion programs. They say children-friendly reunions entertain and enlighten everyone involved. Further, they say, reunions instill in children a sense of pride and promote positive memories that hopefully will encourage them to carry on the tradition for generations to come.

Reunion planning experts urge families to include children in the planning process, saying that children themselves know what will keep them entertained and interested in the event in the long run. They also suggest that families plan age-appropriate events for children. (For example, don't ask teenagers to play hopscotch.) Also, take advantage of recreational facilities. If the reunion is being held at a resort, determine whether bikes or skates are available for rent. Also plan your reunion near major attractions, such as African-American museums, and water or amusement parks, which are large and accessible entertainment centers for children.

"Children are the next generation," says Wallace, who is currently a headline comedy act at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas. "Why shouldn't they be involved? They have to be involved, or there is no reason to have the family reunion."

David Bradford, a Dallas resident, couldn't agree more with Wallace.

Bradford, who serves as chairman of the planning committee for the Pettigrew Family Reunion, organizes interactive games for children and adults to play together at the reunion. Many of the games are designed, he says, with the goal in mind to help young people learn their family history. Others are simply designed for fun, including those modeled after Wheel of Fortune, The Price is Right, and Let's Make a Deal, Bradford says. He also puts his personal touch on carnival games, such as raffles and the "ball toss," where participants must strike down objects with a ball to win a prize. He also hosted a fishing tournament, where trophies were presented to winning teams. It was a fun event, especially for city dwellers.

"There are a lot of different things I develop every year to make the family reunion better and to keep us communicating so that everybody gets to know their extended family," Bradford says. His family began holding reunions in 1998 after his cousin, Deborah Pettigrew-Robertson, the family historian, who lives in Mansfield, Texas, discovered copies of marriage licenses of family members dating back to the late-1800s in Smith County, Texas, near Tyler. The most recent reunion was held on June 18 at a recreation center on the outskirts of Dallas. About 200 family members, including dozens of younger people, attended the reunion.

Dozens of children and teens also were among the hundreds of family members who attended the 50th anniversary of the Woods Family Reunion in Toledo, Ohio, last summer. Elbert Woods of Chicago, the reunion's president and oldest member, says the reunion was founded in Ohio half a century ago, and for many years, especially in the South before integration, was held at family members' homes. These days, the Woods Family Reunion is held at hotels and resorts across the country.

Shirley Robinson of St. Louis, whose late mother was one of the original family members, has helped plan several reunions over the years. She says that activities for children are always a priority during the planning process. "In past years, we have had horseback riding, skating, visits to amusement parks and zoos, go-karts, putt-putt golf, hiking, boating--all with the young people in mind," says Robinson. "We've also had talent and fashion shows, even weddings at the reunion. We also award college scholarships.

"Our goal is to plan activities that include everyone, but we especially want to cater to the young families with children," Robinson says. "They are our future, and we want them to carry on the family tradition."

Robinson and other reunion planners agree that traveling to reunions can be expensive, especially when children are involved. The sprawling Burtin family came up with a plan to pay transportation costs for children, says Annette Burtin, a member of the family that also spells its name "Burten" and "Burton," according to the family genealogy chart. "We collect money to help pay transportation costs for the children," Burtin says. "If parents pay for themselves, the reunion committee will pick up the cost for the children. We just want them to come."

The Burtins also work hard to keep children interested and involved in the reunion. The family planning committee requests and uses program suggestions from teenagers, she says. At the most recent "Burten, Burtin, Burton Family Reunion," in June 2004 in Minneapolis, Minn., 75 children were part of the 300 family members in attendance. "Our main goal is to keep the children involved so that they will remain interested in their history," says Burtin, who works at a legal office in Chicago.

Planners advise families to make reunions attractive to children of all ages. Wallace and other planners have turned their reunion into a can't-miss event for the youth in their family. About 170 children were among the 550 relatives who attended the 29th Annual Grand Family Reunion, which was held at the Crown Plaza Ravina Hotel on the outskirts of Atlanta. On career day, children were exposed to celebrity relatives like Wallace himself, his brother Steve Wallace, who won three Super Bowl rings before retiring from the San Francisco 49ers; Bobby Hamilton, who won two Super Bowl rings with the New England Patriots; and Amani Toomer, a player for the New York Giants, who also won a Super Bowl ring. At another event, some children won $300 gift certificates to Champs Sports, the big-box sporting goods store. They also had the opportunity to participate in the taping of a commercial for Champs that is scheduled to appear nationwide, Wallace says. He says he helped organize the event because he wanted to make the reunion memorable for young people.

"Family reunions are about keeping families together," he says. "These kids get together and start having fun, whereas they didn't know each other before the reunion. Now, you can't keep them apart. That's what reunions are all about, keeping families together. It starts with the kids.'