Reunion Planning

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Any interested family member; young, old or in-between, knowledgeable of family members and how to locate them. Try to get 2, 3, or more people to help.


Convention and visitors bureaus, state and city tourism offices, extended family members and friends who have held reunions, local companies (for give-aways), The Family Reunion Institute and Reunions Magazine.


ALL of your family members and family friends. What’s needed is contact information (phone number, home address, e-mail), and invitations (can be formal or informal).


All reunions cost money. How much depends on the type of reunion and where you have it. It could be a one-day event, picnic, dinner dance/ ball/banquet or last an entire weekend with two-three days of planned activities.


Reunions are good any time of the year—although most people have them during the summer months.

-     summer (pros-weather, family members already taking vacations, school is out)

-     fall (pros-cheaper rates, weather)

-     winter (pros-holiday season)

-     spring (pros-weather)


Allow yourself enough time to properly plan a reunion.  If more than a one-day picnic, you’ll need approximately 18-24 months.


Depending on the size of the family you can have a picnic in a park or family member’s back yard, go to an amusement park, hotel, resort, cruise ship, banquet hall, military base, or school dorms.


Family dues, rich relatives, family fundraisers. Fundraisers not only raise money, but also can be fun and help the family get to know each other better.


First steps: get feedback from family members, determine length of time and read the GET ORGANIZED section.

Having a family reunion takes time, commitment, and planning. To get started, form a committee of family members. It can be as small as 3-4 people. Include young people when possible. Decide how often the committee will meet and consider the following items: Date, Invitations and Notifications, Location, Travel and Lodging, Facilities, Food, Mailing/Email List, Program and Format, Finances, Local Transportation, Communications and Souvenirs.


Communications with family members help to generate information and maintain interest over the months of planning for the reunion. A computer makes it easier to handle all of your communications.

Compile the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of as many family members as you can find through your family network. Note how each person is related to the family.

The first communication may just be a notice that the family reunion is being planned and that suggestions are welcome.  When the location, date, and facility have been confirmed send another notice, including the cost. This should go out at least 4-6 months before the reunion. If the reunion site has some particularly attractive features (such as nearby amusement parks, beaches, shopping, etc.),include this information to build interest.

You may wish to send out a survey asking about the kinds of activities family members would like to have. This can help the planners. Or your survey may be sent to gather information about each person to be included in a directory.

Set a definite date for registration and payment. It is necessary to know who will be coming to the reunion so that arrangements regarding food, trips and tours, and lodging may be finalized. Be prepared to mail a follow-up letter closer to the due date and set up a telephone chain to contact family members who haven’t responded.

Don’t forget to include directions for how to get to the event using various modes of transportation. Some facilities may provide maps.


Family finances and expenses may dictate the search for the right facility, but often the family reunion is perceived as a time for a vacation and members want a nice place.  If there is a particular purpose for the reunion; e.g., bringing people together primarily to get to know each other in depth, a more isolated area may be more desirable. On the other hand, if family members have said they want to spend time on their own, look for a facility near shopping and amusements. The local Convention and Visitors Bureau can be very helpful in providing assistance.In addition to hotels, consider conference centers, state parks with housing facilities, resorts, and college campuses. All activities do not have to be held where people are housed. Picnics may be held in a park or banquets may be held at the local museum.Eating is an important reunion event; people like to have plenty of good food. The choice of a facility sometimes dictates the food arrangements. Some require you to use their food service; others offer a meal plan. Confirm all arrangements in your negotiations with hotels and in the information package you send to your family members.ACTIVITIESFamily members do look forward to having fun together. The range of possible activities is limitless. The more family members are involved in carrying out the activities, the more likely their participation. Talents in the family have an opportunity to shine. Use the abilities and interests of family members to have such activities as:

  • talent shows
  • family history telling
  • choir singing
  • recognition ceremonies
  • arts and crafts exhibits
  • fashion shows
  • music and poetry
  • sports

Family members may lead workshops in their areas of expertise such as economic development, investing, education, parenting skills, political action, etc. Remember to include activities for all ages, including youth and the elderly.


Family reunions do cost money, but with careful planning every family can afford to have one. The cost of organizing includes expenses such as postage, duplication, stationery, and telephone. These costs may be passed on to the family members as part of their registration fee. The planning committee should be aware that deposits might also be needed for the site, souvenirs, and the like. However, some families have fundraising events during the year to offset these expenses. Fundraisers may include dinner dances and parties, raffles, casinos or theater trips, card parties, flea markets, and any other way that people raise money. At the reunion itself, mementos such as tote bags, t-shirts, hats, etc., can be sold above cost to help pay for expenses.


Sharing family history has become a major activity at family reunions. Many families have found interesting ways to tell the story other than through family trees and charts. Genealogical societies, genealogists, family DNA testing services and other resources exist to help persons trace their roots. Be sure to interview the family elders and tape what they say. Also remember that family reunions offer a chance to collect history in the making. Videotape your activities and record information about living members for the sake of future generations.


After the reunion, evaluate how it went.  Don’t assume. Ask. The answer may surprise you and help make the next reunion more fun for everyone.  Some families distribute the survey at the final group event.  Accentuate the positive and celebrate your successes. Iron out the rough spots. Encourage ongoing gatherings and mini-reunions.  A family newsletter is another effective way to build and maintain interest in your reunion.  You’ll find that it gets easier to organize and even more fun as time goes on.

Good Luck with your planning!


24-18 months before

  • determine length of reunion and set date
  • identify location
  • begin contacting hotels, conducting site visits
  • begin exploring activities, events, mementoes
  • prepare estimated budget
  • discuss payment options
  • hold 1st fundraiser


18-12 months before

  • make decision on hotel
  • make decision on activities, events, mementoes
  • revise, finalize budget
  • determine how family members will pay
  • discuss how family to be notified
  • hold 2nd fundraiser


12-9 months before

  • identify tasks and assignments related to activities, events, mementoes
  • send 1st official notice to family (save the date)


9-6 months before

  • continue with tasks and assignments
  • design programs, info, materials, name badges, signage, etc.
  • hold 3rd fundraiser
  • send 2nd notice with full reunion details, registration info, directions, etc. to family members


6-3 months before

  • send requests for proclamations, giveaways, specialty items
  • continue with tasks and assignments
  • continue designing programs, info, materials, name badges, signage, etc.
  • reminder notice + follow-up with family members


3-1 month before

  • follow-up on requests for proclamations, giveaways, specialty items
  • continue with tasks and assignments
  • finalize program, materials, name badges, signage, etc.
  • follow-up with family members


1 month – 2 weeks before

  • follow-up with hotel
  • continue with tasks and assignments
  • copy program, materials, info, signage, etc.
  • prepare badges, gift bags, etc.


1 week before

  • final follow-up/meeting with hotel
  • final prep program/reunion materials – box/bag/pack


Reunion Time!

  • enjoy!


1 month after

  • meet to evaluate and debrief:  what worked – what didn’t – what needs improvement, etc.
  • set date for next reunion

Looking for things to do with the family this reunion? Her are some basic ideas:

Getting Young Folks Involved…

  •  ask for their input and suggestions; incorporate their suggestions when you can
  • ask what activities they would be interested in, what fundraisers they are willing to support
  • encourage them to meet on a regular basis
  • music, music, music
  • activities they may enjoy -
    • sports; basketball, baseball, tennis, Olympic-type games
    • roundtables and meetings
    • back2school packs
    • ice breakers
    • researching family history (involves computers-they’ll like it!)
    • working on a family newsletter
    • giving back program; helping elders, babysitting, paid internships with family members who have businesses
    • workshops focusing on college, getting that first job
    • participating in the reunion as greeters, mc, talent show, set-up & clean-up

Family Members love getting stuff.  Consider…

  • sending birthday cards to family members
  • inviting family members to attend planning meetings
  • starting a family newsletter
  • scholarships for students
  • door prizes and games (with a trophy or prize for the winner)
  • fun gifts for oldest family member in attendance, youngest family member in attendance, most newlywed couple, longest married couple, person traveling longest distance, first to arrive, last to arrive, largest family group

Have school-aged family members design…

  • t-shirts
  • badges
  • family crest
  • invitations

Family projects…

  • family quilt
  • family cook-book
  • family calendar
  • family tree
  • research family history


  • raffles
  • bowling parties
  • skating parties
  • family calendar
  • family cook-book
  • Saints & Sinners Ball
  • candy sale
  • dances
  • bus trips
  • sell dinners
  •  basketball shoot-outs ($1 for each basket made in 30 seconds or 1 minute)
  •  § Making Change Contest - It’s a contest within a contest. Find a BIG glass jar or container and challenge your family members to ¬-guess how much money it will take to fill it up to the brim, and ­-bring their change to help fill it up. Create “guess slips” for family members to record their guess of how much money will fill the container.  The family member coming closest to guessing the exact amount wins either a portion of the amount in the jar —or a separate prize (ex: movie pack with movie tickets, block-buster gift card, popcorn and soda).  Identify rules ahead of time. Rule #1 – no prize unless the jar is full.

At weekend reunions

  • provide family members with disposable cameras
  • recognize school students educational achievement for the school year with-
  • award ceremony for high school and college graduates
  • move-up ceremony for all promoted students
  • spelling bee, family history bee, etc.
  • game night (have family members bring their favorite board and card games) get games on dvd and play on a monitor so more family members can participate – like family feud, deal or no deal, monopoly(?), Wii; do a scavenger hunt
  • themed fashion shows (Afrocentric, back-to-school, prom & evening wear)
  • talent show
  • who’s that baby photo contest
  • an Everybody’s Birthday Party!
  • splash party
  • softball or basketball game (north vs. south, east vs. west, old school vs. young ‘uns, your family vs. a local team)
  • cook-off (best fried chicken, potato salad, macaroni & cheese, etc.)
  • bake-off (best cake, pie, cookies, etc.)
  • include icebreakers

Sample Icebreakers (to get family family members mingling and talking to one another):

Family Facts -

  • design a sheet of paper with 100 numbered blank lines
  • ask family members to find someone they do not know and write down as many facts about that person as they can
  • the person getting the most facts wins (a trophy, certificate, etc.)

Family Facts Game -

  •  Keep the sheets of facts that family members gathered, and create a separate icebreaker where you now list facts about family members on a sheet of paper, ask family members to identify who the fact is about, and give points for each correct answer.

The Name Game -

On a sheet of paper, create a list of general and specific information about family members, with lines for the answers. The person who gets the most correct answers wins. Example:  Name a  family member-

- wearing brown sandals , wearing black sandals, wearing white shorts

- wearing striped blouse, wearing pierced ears, wearing a hat

- without pierced ears, with red toenail polish, with red fingernails

- born in 1930′s, born in 1940′s, born in 1950′s, etc.

- lives in (name cities and/or state where family members live)

- with two brothers, with  only one sister, who is an only child

At the family picnic…

  • recognize school students educational achievements for the school year with an award ceremony for high school and college graduates and a move-up ceremony for all promoted students
  • Create an Olympic Event with activities for all age groups and provide ribbons for all participants and award winners with a trophy

Sample Olympic Races:

  • 0 to 2       =       baby crawl
  • 2 to 4       =       block race
  • 5 to 6       =       20 yard dash
  • 7 to 10      =       sneaker race
  • 11 to 13     =       sack race
  • 14 to 15     =       potato race
  • 16 to 38    =       basketball shoot-out
  • 39+           =        horseshoe toss
  • all ages     =        tug of war, water balloon toss
  • Hold a series of tournaments to see who’s best at basketball (3-on-3), volleyball (3-on-3), double-dutch, hoola-hoop, dodge-ball, jacks, board and card games including: bingo, pinochle, pokeno, chess, checkers, scrapple, monopoly

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.


6. 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.

7. 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.

8. 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.

9. 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.

10.  Does the Family Reunion Institute offer literature and/or products? 

Yes, we have a brochure about the Institute that includes tips on planning a family reunion.  We also have a brochure entitled Family Reunions and Philanthropy that describes ways a family can plan and implement philanthropic programs.

We have several copyrighted products that are a result of workshops given at conferences. These include manuals on:

  • Family by-laws.
  • How to develop and organize a family directory.
  • How to make a family quilt
  • Advanced aspects of planning, such as committee responsibilities, fund raising ideas, budget forms, etc.

The Family Reunion Institute Conference is geared toward family members who plan reunions. People who come may be in all kinds of professions, but when they attend the conference they come as family members wanting to know more about planning reunions–or how to hand over the reigns. The increasing number of hospitality professionals attending our conferences reflects the importance of the reunion market in that industry.  We include beginning and advanced workshops.  Thus, we have the initial steps of researching family history; and the more sophisticated steps using computer software; and even more advanced instruments, such as pod casts.  We have scrapbooking with paper and photos as well as scrapbooking using the computer and internet.

Variety of Topics

Our last conference included twenty-two different workshops:

Tracing your Roots. Basic ideas for families to start researching their history, including oral histories and using a variety of records.

Does It Run in the Family? Health Genealogy.  A new tool to get medical histories so people are not embarrassed to talk and, in fact, have fun sharing the information.

Spirituality and the Family Reunion.

Family Empowerment.  Establishing economic development and investing programs in the family.  Establishing by-laws and structure. Pros and cons of a Family Investment Club, and a family non-profit 501(c)3organization.

Measuring Return on Your Family Event. How to advance negotiating power with hotels, etc.

Preserving Memories: A Stitch In Time. Making your family quilt.

Preserving Memories.  Traditional scrapbooking and electronic scrapbooking from which CDs, etc. can be made.

Preserving Memories.  Saving family stories

Family. Internet. Web.  Computers, software and websites.  Making your own website, and Podcasting (using the ipod).

DNA and your Roots. -  How to find ancestors through DNA.

Organizing and Funding Your Reunion. Basic how-to’s.  (Our most popular workshop)

Involving Young People.  How to involve younger people in planning.

Telling the Story.  Different ways of telling family history.  Panelists describe how to develop family crests and family newsletters.

Finding the Rest of Me.  Genealogical research

Guess Who is Coming to the Reunion?  Embracing diversity in the family, including discussion about differences in religious traditions, sexual orientation, and disabilities.

The Multicultural Family: Raising “ISM” Proof Children.  Preserving our individual cultural heritage, respecting and appreciating the cultures of others, and seeking opportunities for positive relationships to build cultural and family strength.

From and Back to China.

Latino Family Reunions.


Our last conference included approximately 30 exhibitors and vendors.  Many represented convention and visitors bureaus, hotels, and other destination venues.  Several vendors promoted a variety of reunion items, such as tee shirts, mugs, pens, etc.

Interesting Speakers

Featured speakers at our last conference were Kenneth Gamble, who was celebrating the 35th Anniversary of the Philly Sound and  spoke about  his Urban Plan, and Angel Ortiz, a former Philadelphia City Councilperson.  Our roster of presenters has been outstanding—not only in terms of what they do for a living, but their focus on family roots. Speakers at previous conferences have included poet Sonia Sanchez; Chris Haley, nephew of Alex Haley; Dr. Robert Hill who researched and wrote the book entitled Strengths of Black Families; and Dr. Raymond Dobard, a professor of art at Howard University  known for his book, Hidden From Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad (1999).  Speakers have included politicians and scholars, including Dr. Mark Auslander, then a professor at Brandeis University, who helped collate the African Voices Art exhibit at the African Museum in Washington, DC.

A list of the workshops and presenters from 1988 to 2007 is available upon request.

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