Saturday, May 2, 2020

Hosting a Virtual Family Reunion in the Age of Coronavirus

Well, 2020 sure took an unexpected turn!

The pandemic has implications for the annual family reunion that I was slated to host over Memorial Day weekend. Social distancing leaves me navigating our changed world in search of a path to salvage the reunion experience.

Rekindling Reunions

In 2015, I rekindled my family's tradition of holding a reunion for descendants of my second great-grandmother Minnie (Hawks) Lumpkins Barber (1881-1973) and her two husbands - John Lumpkins and Joseph Barber. Learn more about Minnie's life in this documentary.

For decades, descendants of Minnie's eight children have gathered at a Kansas state park to reconnect and reminisce about our shared family history.

Over the years, the reunion's attendance surged until the last of Minnie's children passed away in 2005. Numbers began to dip. Eventually, the organized reunions ceased altogether. Our family's tradition stopped.

In 2015, amid a resurging interest in family history (thanks to a Facebook group that brought everyone together virtually and engaged them through videos and Throwback Thursday photo posts), we organized our first in-person reunion in the banquet hall of a steakhouse.

It was a full house, so in 2016 and for three subsequent years we returned to the state park with over 100 family members. See Kansas Family Reunions: Celebrating Five Years to learn more about the success of our renewed reunions.

Reunions in the age of Coronavirus

To be responsive to the dangers that the current health crisis poses for everyone, but particularly for our many older family members, the decision was made to cancel the formal in-person gathering.

I wrote to our family that:

"Despite the disappointing news, this unprecedented situation gives us an opportunity to reflect on the strength of our family's history and think creatively about how we adapt. 
We descend from hardy stock. Minnie Barber's tough as nails character inspires us to roll with the punches and demonstrate adaptability when facing challenges (after all, we are talking about a woman born in a dugout on the prairie who outlived two husbands, raised eight children, lived through two world wars and a Great Depression, and survived the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918!). 
In that spirit, I propose a few ideas for a reunion that connects and celebrates our family virtually."

I shared three ideas to attempt to capture and preserve elements of our reunion experience.

  • Virtual Video Call: Host a video call for an hour or two where folks will log on, see familiar faces, say hello, commiserate about the pandemic, and share our amazement at the ability of technology to remotely connect each of us from our scattered corners across the country. I'm still investigating technology platforms with Zoom and the recently announced Facebook Messenger Groups in the running.
  • Group Photo: Although we can't be in person for our traditional group photo, we can make a creative attempt. Family members will take a socially distanced photo or selfie and share that with me to be stitched together into one giant photo collage. 
  • Reunion T-Shirts: During the 1990's, our reunions were big business and had an annual themed t-shirt. I never attempted this for the reignited reunions. But, in an era when we're quarantined and looking for ways to connect, what better way than a shirt that everyone wears on the day of the virtual video call and in their group photo? 

To properly theme the shirts, I hired an affordable graphic designer on Fiverr to modify the only portrait of Minnie with all eight of her children (which has become a hallmark of our family's visual branding). The graphic artist outfitted everyone in 2020 attire (face masks).

Working with CreateMyTee, I added the updated family portrait to a blue shirt - in honor of healthcare workers. The site creates an online page where family members can place their own orders. This service spares me the hassle of being a middleman ordering, paying, or distributing shirts for the group. This was a challenge in the 1990's that I wanted to avoid.

Those are three of my ideas for hosting a virtual family reunion, which we'll pilot later this month.

What success have you had with virtually convening and engaging family? Share your ideas, including technology platforms, for how to host a virtual reunion in the age of Coronavirus.


  1. ah man! I love these ideas! Thank you for sharing them with us. :-)

    1. If you give them a go, let me know how they work out for you, Taneya.

  2. Wonderful alternatives, Michael! Let us know how it goes. It inspired me to think of doing something similar even in a non-pandemic environment since my relatives are spread all over the world and not likely to travel to any particular location.

    1. I had in mind the success of your Passover Seder as I was thinking about the virtual video call, Amy. I'm excited to see how it all unfolds.