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Houston Mormon teens setup own family history research group

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This weekend youth from the Klein Champions area in Houston chose to get up early on a Saturday morning to do something unusual. After meeting for an early morning breakfast at the home of 16-year Rylan Hair in Spring, youth ranging in ages from 12 to 18 went as a group to the Family History Library at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Klein Road to search out names of ancestors.

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“What was cool,” said Hair, “was that the library volunteers taught us how, let us have our own computers, and then let us do the research ourselves.”

Jared Hair, parent of Rylan, was impressed with how many young people were interested in going to a Family History library, especially on a Saturday when there are so many other distractions available – like sleeping in.

“The most amazing part about this whole outing is that none of the youth were there just because of a bunch of peers,” Hair said. “They were all genuinely interested in searching for ancestors.”

“After a month of boring summer vacation we knew we wanted to do something fun and spiritual,” said 16-year-old Collin Sanford, one of the co-founders of a Klein youth family history group. Sanford and best friend Rylan Hair both attended the 2013 Roots Tech Fair hosted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints last February. In a hobby that has traditionally been dominated by individuals much older – such as their grandparents – these teenage boys were drawn to the idea of researching and finding ancestors.

“[The organizers of the fair] made genealogy sound awesome,” said Aaron Hair, older brother of Rylan. “We used to think that it was just for old people, but then we found out that family history as a whole is now more directed toward youth. The research is easier. The website and whole layout is so much easier and user friendly.” It was during the conference that the two friends decided, “It’s our chance to start something.”

And start something they did.

Sanford set up a group through groupme.com, a group text-messaging app, inviting fellow students and friends to join a peer-run family history group. Ryan and Collin discovered they were not alone in their desire to find ancestors. Around fifteen teenagers attended that first group meeting. And the numbers keep growing.

“We can’t really call it a meeting,” Rylan confessed, “because we have so much fun.”

Finding one’s ancestors is much easier because so many records are being indexed and uploaded more than ever before. Over 60,000 records were indexed in just one Klein area Mormon congregation last year alone. Multiply that by several congregations and the amount is staggering.

So what is the trick to get high school students involved in genealogy? It seems it’s the peer-to-peer advertising that does the trick.

“If adults talk to youth about family history we tend to tune them out,” Rylan Hair admitted, “but if a peer, someone your own age is excited about this work then it’s easier to get excited about it yourself.”

Close to 400 participants attended last year’s satellite-streamed event that was hosted by Family Search, with over 60 youth attending evening events aimed specifically in getting more youth involved in the search of family ancestors. And it seems to be working.

Paul Nauta, head of public affairs for FamilySearch indicated that the youth are not intimidated nor are they daunted by technology. The group at FamilySearch has been aiming to provide more family history experiences for the younger crowd. And for the youth, family history research is a trend that seems to be growing.

Many people want to know where they come from, where they belong, but this need is especially important for youth. Family history can give them not only a sense of place in the world but according to Sara Duke, a psychologist with Glenridge Mental Health Associates in Atlanta, “The ones who know a lot about their families tend to do better when they face challenges.”

According to a New York times article on research done by psychologists Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush of Emory University, “The more children [know] about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.”

But stories about one’s forefathers don’t always have to be rosy. The most healthful ones, according to Dr. Duke, are the narratives that include all different kinds of members on the family tree – from the ancestor who was a pillar of the community to the one who was hung as a horse thief. It’s the overall sense of sticking together as a family, no matter the ups and downs.

Today it is easier than ever to search out one’s family narratives.

Ramona Siddoway contributed to this article.

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