'And what is the name of the ancestor you would like your family to learn more about?' the Family History Consultant asked. 'Do you know his personal identification number on FamilySearch Family Tree? This will help us learn more about him so we can give your family the best experience possible next Wednesday evening.'
The young mother gave the consultant the name and number and hung-up, intrigued. She had never had much time for family history, a common problem with young families. Only 2.7 percent of Church members are actively involved in finding ancestors and submitting their names to the temple. She had learned from her mother about a whole new family history experience designed to engage the entire family at the new Family Discovery Room in the Lethbridge, Alberta Family History Center. “You can ask a consultant to put together an evening for you. They’ll research an ancestor of your choosing and tell you a bit about the surname and a story of the ancestor. They offer a craft or activity related to the place and time of your ancestor and invite the family to dress up in old-fashioned clothes for a photo. Then while the children are playing, they help parents find an ancestor's information to take to the temple.” It sounded like a great plan, but with young children does anything ever go according to plan?
Upon arrival, her young daughter looked decidedly mutinous. The room had a TV, a small gas fireplace and a comfy brown couch. One wall sported shelves full of craft supplies and a rod hung with old-fashioned clothes. The consultant welcomed them and told them a little about their ancestor, Theodore Brandley, who had founded the community of Stirling years before. The young mom looked at her daughter. Still mutinous. 'This is a rag doll, like your Grandpa Brandley’s little girls used to play with when they were your age,' the consultant said. The little girl lit up; her eyes fixed on the small doll made of brightly coloured strips of cloth. 'Would you like to make a doll?' the consultant asked her. The girl nodded.
'But we don't want to make a doll,' one of the boys protested. 'Good, neither did your Grandpa,' the consultant said. 'Your Grandpa and his boys would have played marbles. Would you like to do that?' The boys played marble games on the floor with their dad as the consultant helped the little girl with her rag doll. 'You know your Grandpa ran a General Store,' she told the kids.'And do you know what he sold? Candy!' She took some jars filled with old-fashioned stick-candy out of a cupboard. 'The candy looked like this. Who wants a piece?'
At the end of the evening the family, dressed in pioneer clothes, had photos taken. As the family left, the young mom felt that Theodore Brandley wasn't just a name or a black and white figure in a faded photo anymore—he was a person with whom they had just spent a wonderful evening making family memories in the present by learning about his past.
The Lethbridge Family History Center, like many of the centers around the world, invites whole families, little children included, into the family history experience. The Lethbridge project fell into the hands of Valerie Duncan whose patriarchal blessing indicated that two parts of her mission on the earth are to seek out her kindred dead and to teach others. Born in Canada, Valerie and her husband, Maurice have five children and 16 grandchildren. “I had 60 binders of family history in my house.” she says. “My kids said that they were going to burn them when I die. That really shocked me.” A former teacher, Valerie, made hand-crafted books about her ancestors' stories. She felt secretly pleased when her son said, “So mom, you know some of those books you have on our ancestors? Could I borrow some of them? I need to teach a priesthood lesson on family history and I promise I won’t burn them.” What a change. “He now submits names to the temple,” Valerie boasts.
“When the Family Discovery Room opened, I moved all my story stuff there. That made my husband happy,” Valerie says. But, not everyone at the center felt happy about the new room, fearing it might result in a baby-sitting burden. “We explained the program and asked if any would mind teaching a child to crochet or knit or something like that. Everyone agreed that could be fun. Suddenly people began donating to our Room: a couch, rocker, fireplace, TV, DVD player, antique games and many other activities,” Valerie says. “We do a lot of homework for your visit. When you schedule the room (for up to two hours), give the name and PIN number of an ancestor so the Center can gather information and stories that will help make a personal connection with the ancestor.”
The Center makes a handcrafted book for the children to take home about the ancestor they requested, sets up age-appropriate activities for the children, then takes the parents to a lap top computer and shows them where temple ordinances are available. “Our hearts fill with joy when we see them in the temple the next day or week. We get so connected that families wave to us in the grocery store. I believe that we’ve touched their hearts, so that when they are older they will do their family work. We’re hoping to reach the 97% of members that haven’t done family history work before. Our main goal is to turn the hearts of the children to the fathers, to teach young children that family history is exciting, not just for old people and turn the hearts of the children to the temple,” Valerie says. Even people who are not members of our Church participate and love the experience of discovering their ancestors.
The Family Discovery Room benefits the workers too. “More and more consultants want to work in that room. We have grandmas teaching embroidery and telling stories. Two ladies made pioneer clothing to dress up in. One seamstress got so excited that she took her own sheet set and made it a lovely dress out of it. For one family with Icelandic ancestors, they made tunics and shields for the kids and played like Vikings. A bishop and his 13-year-old son with Swedish ancestry even made their own 'Midsummer Eve' beanies.”
The Family Discovery Room started in the spring of 2015, although many people don’t know about it yet. “Starting in September, we asked every consultant to invite a member in their ward to book a night. To my knowledge, we are the only one that has a room dedicated to family discovery. Every October, we hold a 2-day consultant training for family history. I know it is divinely-inspired because I saw what it did for my own family,” Valerie testifies.
Those residing in the Lethbridge area are invited to contact the Lethbridge Family History Center to book a similar experience. Those outside the Lethbridge area are encouraged to contact their local Family History Center or Ward Family History Consultants to see if they offer something similar.