Even family reunions are in recession
You want to go, but it's your only day off, it's a long drive, gas is expensive and the kids have games they don’t want to miss.
You're not alone.
Autumn Behringer, assistant sociology professor at UW-Rock County, said more families are skipping reunions. She’s seeing a decline in the level of commitment to extended families compared to a generation or two ago.
In generations past, "children grew up knowing cousins, grandparents and aunts primarily because they lived in close proximity to extended families," she said.
But that’s changed since people are more mobile.
"Teens leave home to go to college out of state, and adults take jobs that move them away from the original family," Behringer said.
Because of these changes, she said family reunions are more critical than ever in maintaining family bonds.
Melissa Paulson-DeVoll, 37, Janesville, has been president of the Paulson family reunion committee since 2003.
"It's getting harder for the older (relatives) to do this, and this was an opportunity to carry on the family tradition down through the generations," she said.
Paulson-DeVoll's great-grandparents Jane and Ole Paulson started the Paulson reunion in 1947 at the family homestead in Blanchardville. The family gathered every year until 2000, when it was decided to have the reunion every other year.
"It just seemed it was so busy for people and less people were coming,'' said Sandy (Paulson) Gilbertson, of Deerfield. She is Paulson-DeVoll's aunt.
"We thought if we'd try every other year, maybe more people would come,'' Gilbertson said.
And they have.
"Attendance is getting better," she said.
"People are starting to come back," Paulson-DeVoll agreed.
Attendance has been up and down through the years. The record was 107 in 1986, but was 17 in 2005, 24 in 2007 and 32 in 2009.
To improve attendance, family reunion organizers picked a date every year—the second Sunday in June—so it would be easy for relatives to remember, Paulson-DeVoll said.
They chose a New Glarus park shelter as a central location, sent invitations and published a notice in local newspapers as a reminder. To keep the reunion affordable, everyone brings a dish to pass and chips in to help pay for the park shelter.
Family reunions "are a way to bind and maintain family relationships,'' Behringer said.
Gilbertson agreed: "If you don't have this reunion, you lose your connection. Otherwise, the only time you see cousins or members of their families is probably at a funeral. It's nice to get together at a more happy time and be able to visit.''
Paulson-DeVoll is proud to admit she's bucking the trend of most in her generation by getting involved in her family reunion.
"I get to hear old stories about my grandparents and fun stuff of my Dad (Albee Paulson), which is a good memory," she said.
Her father died in an automobile accident earlier this year.
"It’s important to know your heritage. And it’s important for me to carry that past down to my son. My Dad would have wanted this,’’ Paulson-DeVoll said.
The next reunion is 2011, when Paulson-Devoll's sister Brenda Kothe, 35, of South Beloit, Ill., will become president of the reunion committee.
“Family is important,” Paulson-DeVoll said. “Plus, it’s fun to visit with relatives you don’t normally see or get to socialize with.’’
Pick the branches--Although it might seem obvious, the first step for any family reunion is to decide who is family. Which side of the family are you inviting? Do you want to include only close relatives or all descendants of Great Grandpa So-And-So? Are you inviting only direct-line relatives—parents, grandparents, and grandkids—or do you plan to include cousins, second cousins, third cousins, etc.?
Create a guest list—Organize a list of family members, including spouses, partners and children. Get in touch with at least one person from each branch of the family to help you track down contact information for each person on your list. Make sure to collect e-mail addresses.
Survey attendees—If you’re planning to include a lot of people, consider sending out a survey. This will help you gauge interest and preferences and ask for help with the planning. Include possible dates and a general location.
Form committee—Unless it will be a small affair, a reunion committee will help make smooth, successful family reunion. Put someone in charge of each major aspect of the reunion—location, social events, budget, mailings, record keeping.
Select the date—Choose the final date based on what’s best for most. Because family reunions can encompass everything from an afternoon barbecue to a large affair lasting more than one day, you’ll also need to determine how long you plan to get together. The farther people have to travel to reach the reunion location, the longer the reunion should last.
Pick a location—Strive for a location that is most accessible and affordable to the majority of people. If family members are clustered in one are, then select a reunion location that’s nearby. If everyone is scattered, then choose a central location.
Plan a budget—This will help decide the scale of the food, decorations, accommodations and activities. Unless you have another source of income, you’ll need to set a per-family registration fee to help with decorations, activities and location costs.
Reserve a site—“Going home” is a big draw for family reunions, so you may want to consider the old family homestead or other historic site connected to your family’s past. Depending on the size of the reunion, you may be able to find a family member who will volunteer to have it at his or her house. If you’re planning a multi-day reunion, then consider a resort location where people can combine reunion activities with a family vacation.
Reunion theme—Family history themes are popular, and so are reunions that celebrate a special family member’s birthday or anniversary or the family’s cultural heritage.