1. Why are family reunions important?
Research conducted by Dr. Ione Vargus in 1986 shows that family reunions help strengthen families. If activities are carried out over a period of three days (the length of most reunions), the reunion becomes much more than a picnic.
2. What particular strengths come through the family reunion?
Most African American families have “entertainment” activities. These activities are important because they transmit values, reinforce identity, bring a sense of closeness and belonging, foster greater communication, and bring us in touch with our past. They highlight authentic family role models. Much education takes place. Generally speaking, reunions and the activities that transpire promote family growth.
3. Can you provide examples of these strengths?
- IDENTITY. After families have been meeting for a while, they get curious about who they really are; i.e., their history. Someone usually takes on the job of learning more and becomes the family historian. At the reunion, this information is passed on to others. Stories of ancestors are inspiring and give a sense of identity. This is most important to children and young people.
- TRANSMISSION OF VALUES. Much of this is informal conversation between an adult and a child. The founder and other board members of the Institute have overheard many informal conversations. They have seen grandmothers “take the stage” and tell young ones how they should behave. Speakers, which nearly every reunion has as part of the banquet, are full of value messages. Other activities also have underlying value messages. For example, the family may not say out loud that education is important. But in awarding certificates, acknowledging honor roll students, and honoring high school and college graduates, the message is loud and clear.
4. How else is the role of the extended family strengthened at the reunion?
Roles that family members used to play when people lived closer to each other are revived at the reunion. They are primarily psychological, but sometimes financial. Reinforcement of family values; passing down proven parenting skills; mentoring and modeling success; informal and incidental counseling; identifying resources; encouragement; and the retelling of family stories all fall within the realm of the extended family. Children can develop relationships with people—other than their parents—with whom to share dreams and concerns as an outgrowth of family reunions. Extended families provide trusted adults other than the parent to help young people know what to do or believe. Respect for elders is renewed. Sometimes family members who note that a relative is having trouble raising children offer advice and may even take those children to live with them. People begin to communicate with each other more frequently. Birthdays and other milestones may be acknowledged by mail, email and/or Facebook. Since we can’t talk to each other over the fence anymore, some families now publish newsletters to spread the family news. Most importantly, children can see role models other than entertainers and athletes. They see and relate to family members who have achieved in business and other professions.
5. How did the Family Reunion Institute come about?
Dr. Ione Vargus, the Institute’s Founder and Director, conducted research about the benefits and purposes of family reunions years before the Institute was launched. As people learned about her work, they began calling with a variety of questions about family reunions. She decided an entity was needed to address these issues and in 1990 the Family Reunion Institute was established as a strictly volunteer organization. There is no paid staff, including Dr. Vargus, who administers the Institute. Temple University provides office space, a telephone and other in-kind services, but in accordance with Temple’s policy on Centers and Institutes, the Institute must be financially self-sufficient.
6. What is the mission of the Family Reunion Institute?
The mission is to build on the strengths of families by providing resources and support that encourage healthy extended family relationships, with reunions as the tool. It is the reunification of the African American family in particular, that inspires and propels our work, although our outreach embraces families of all races, cultures and ethnicities. We are the only organization in the country focusing exclusively on this.
7. What strategy does the Institute use to accomplish its mission?
The Institute encourages families to have or strengthen reunions that are already in place. We also emphasize the importance of including activities that foster the extended family.
8. What are the activities of the Institute?
We previously held a family reunion conference nearly every year. We refer people to existing resources about planning a reunion. There are lots of books on how to plan a family reunion as well as a bi-monthly magazine entitled Reunions Magazine. Also, Black Meetings and Tourism magazine has a yearly reunion supplement and Ebony magazine has been writing about family reunions for many years. What we’re finding now is that many who call the Institute are interested in getting beyond the planning stage. The want to talk about specific family concerns, such as family secrets; family disagreements; why people don’t come to the reunion and what can be done to change it; and the need for more structure. Fortunately for our callers, Dr. Vargus has solid credentials and over 55 years of experience counseling families. By exploring family issues within the context of family reunions, there is no stigma. It’s done within a “strengths perspective.” Dr. Vargus gives a number of speeches each year on the benefits and purposes of family reunions. She emphasizes the inherent strengths that families bring to and build up during a reunion. Many families don’t recognize that they are going beyond “entertainment” when they have activities. She often speaks at family reunions to help the family recognize what they are accomplishing just by having a reunion. Many families modify their reunion programs immediately after her speeches.