The do’s and don’ts of family reunions

theGRIO REPORT - Here are some steps and tips developed by Ione Vargus, a professor and dean emerita at Temple University, that will help ensure a successful family reunion...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

A sense of belonging, a thirst for knowledge and love are reasons why families everywhere make annual pilgrimages throughout the United States and abroad to reconnect with kinfolk. Some 82 million Americans will participate in family reunions this year, according to Budget Travel Magazine, which notes that 44 percent of leisure trips taken by African-Americans include family visits.

While African-Americans have long prized family gatherings, Roots, the 1977 televised miniseries, caused a surge in more detailed, organized and even elaborate family reunions in the 1980s and 1990s, says Ione Vargus, a professor and dean emerita at Temple University who founded and directs its Family Reunion Institute.

“After Roots, people got very motivated to seek out their own family genealogy,” says Vargus, “It was like a movement. I saw it as a strength of the black family.”

In Memphis, Tenn., Pamela Guy-Strayhorn and her cousin, Darin Leake Sr., demonstrate their forefathers’ strength that included fighting in the Civil War and raising their offspring with the belief to always put family first.

Today, as Guy-Strayhorn and Leake prepare for the Guy Family Reunion in 2011, they expect nearly 700 people to attend the five-day event. In 2007, the family’s first reunion since 1991, between 350-400 people showed up, says Leake. Two years later, in 2009, 450 were in attendance. Much of the reunions’ success can be tied to Leake who created and maintains a website that includes a welcome letter, daily inspirations, reunion photos, registration information and more. Leake says he started the website after finding old family photographs in a shoebox after his grandfather’s death in 2002.

Along with the website, Guy-Strayhorn says she employs a personal touch by calling about 400 relatives once a month just to stay in touch.

“I’m so excited,” she says while ticking off the list of events for next year’s reunion that will include tours of nearby Civil War sites, skating, a movie night, banquet, church service and a farewell brunch. “I love family and always have because we were raised to love family and there was never a thing as too many people. We do this because it’s building our family back up. Family has always been the backbone for African-Americans, and these days you can’t make it without family.”

Here are some steps and tips developed by Vargus that will help ensure a successful family reunion.

Ten Steps for Planning a Family Reunion

© Ione D. Vargus, Ph.D

Family Reunion Institute

1. Eighteen months or a year before, form a planning committee of about six people. Include young people. Send a communication that a family reunion is being planned. Include a survey that asks for preferences regarding accommodations, dates and costs.

2. Do some preliminary thinking. Think of the who, what, when and where. Who will come, where will it be held, when will it be held and what will you do. Also, how many days will it be?

3. Compile a list of relatives with names, addresses, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses. Arrange alphabetically

4. Designate responsibilities to different members of the host family or committee:

Hotel or site

Program development





Memorabilia or Souvenirs

Youth Development (Special Activities for youth)


Family Heritage (How to present at reunion)

5. Select location and facility. Can people get to the location from the airport or train station? Will you need meeting space, hospitality room, banquet room, group meals, and picnic equipment. Can the hotel and other places where activities will be held, accommodate the disabled, particularly those in wheel chairs?

6. After site and date have been determined, communicate this information. Outline different options for activities and ask for family interests. Mention if there will be additional fees.

7. Figure out how you’re going to raise money to pay for up-front expenses such as postage, duplicating, stationary, telephone, and deposits for hotel, food, transportation or other services.

8. Develop program from responses of the family. Send registration form and indicate final payment date.

9. Six to four weeks ahead send out another communication regarding final plans and agenda. If people haven’t paid registration fees, and made facility reservations, urge them to do so immediately.

10. One to two weeks before reunion, confirm all hotel and facility arrangements, payments, activities and other details. Verify transportation arrangements if people are flying in from out of town and the location is not easily accessible.

Three don’ts.

1. Don’t be intimidated by what other families are doing at their reunions. They may have been at it a long time.

2. Don’t overextend yourself. If this is the first reunion, don’t be too expansive.

3. Don’t book hotel reservations for people. Have family members make their own.

Biggest Problems.

1. Where to have the reunion can be a problem if elders want to come but are somewhat immobile. Getting the money to help family members who can’t afford it

2. Getting responses to the invitation. Family members don’t let you know they are coming and you have to plan for food and the number of hotel rooms. Or if you have a registration fee, they don’t send in money. Think of what you will do when people show up unexpectedly.

3. Up-front finances. May have to have fundraisers.

4. Arranging for transportation if people are flying in from out of town and the location is not easily accessible.