Hi, cuz Reunions: At home, on a picnic or on a cruise, a family gathering can be a memorable event. But start planning the party early.

June 28, 1998|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

There are no statistics on how many family reunions start at funerals, but the number must be high.

"People say to each other, 'We've got to stop meeting like this,' " says Edith Wagner, editor of Reunions Magazine. The realization that the older generation won't be around forever often spurs people to organize a happier way to get together and strengthen family ties.

This is the season for reunions, because kids are out of school, people are able to take vacations and there are fewer scheduling conflicts. In fact, if this story inspires you to organize your own family gathering, you have just enough time to plan a summer reunion -- for 1999, that is.

"Give planning the first one enough time," says Wagner. "One to two years is not too much. Don't do it alone, and don't try for the moon the first time. Keep it simple and be practical."

The first reunion might be a pot-luck picnic in the park, but you never know where it will go from there.

Curtis Adams, a dentist in West Baltimore, and his five siblings began getting together every other year in the '60s.

"After my father turned 90," he says, "We started meeting every year."

Although the Adams family reunion has taken place on cruise ships and in hotels, the original siblings usually act as hosts on a rotating basis. And "once every seven years, we go back to our home site in Waycross, Georgia," says Adams.

When the reunion was last held in Baltimore, in 1994, it had grown so much the family had to reserve a block of rooms in the Radisson Hotel to accommodate everyone. The event, which takes place the third weekend in July, now includes more than 100 family members.

Participants get Adams reunion T-shirts, and there are always lots of social activities. On Sunday, the group attends the church the family member sponsoring the event and donates 10 times the age of Adams' father ($1,000 this summer).

The Adams reunion will be one of about 200,000 taking place this year in the U.S., estimates Tom Ninkovich of Reunion Research, which publishes booklets on organizing and holding reunions. A whole industry of reunion planners and travel agents has sprung up to make getting the generations together easy and fun.

"There are a huge span of activities" for reunion-goers, says Kevin Abell of Roland Park Travel. "We've done cruises, which are great because they appeal to a mix of generations; but we've also done everything from dude ranch vacations to planning trips to state parks."

Often participants count these trips as vacations, which they would save for anyway, so it's not just wealthy families who hold their reunions in resort hotels or on cruise ships. On the other hand, if the event gets too expensive, it will invariably exclude some member of the family.

Once the family has decided what sort of reunion it wants ("Pick up the telephone and start calling," advises Adams), the next step is to set the date.

Pick a date that is significant (a 90th birthday) or likely to be convenient (a long holiday weekend) or simply what's available if the group wants to visit a resort.

"Don't do a consensus," advises Wagner. "In a large family, someone always can't come."

Once the date is set, it shouldn't be changed. This is assuming, of course, that family members have been given plenty of notice - at least six months.

You have the date and you have the place. Now what?

"The number one rule," says Ninkovich, "is to show the kids a good time. The adults will take care of themselves." If the children have wonderful memories of the event, they'll be more likely to continue the tradition when it's time for them to take over.

The activities should, however, include some the generations can do together. These might be a planned walk or a day trip or an auction to raise money for the next reunion.

Even the most simple reunion will have out-of-pocket expenses for the people who are in charge, beginning with paying for the postcards announcing the event.

"Start asking for money right up front," says Wagner.

Those who aren't comfortable with the idea of a reunion fee can raise money at the event with an auction, white elephant sale or raffle; or they can sell T-shirts, a collection of family recipes and the like.

The most important activity for everyone at any reunion, of course, is learning the family history. Ninkovich recommends gathering as much material as possible to tell the story: photos, heirlooms, recipes, photocopies of immigration lists, even music. Plan a program where people can talk about family history and ethnicity.

"A reunion is more important than any other gathering insofar as its long-range benefit to the family," says Ninkovich.

Tips from those who know

Thinking of organizing a family reunion? Here are some tips from the experts:

* Start small.

* Create a computer database of family members to make the next year's planning easier.

* Announce the reunion well in advance, especially if travel is involved.

* Don't exclude any member of the family. This is a time to heal rifts.

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