Cousins by the Dozens

by Larry A. Hiller

Assistant Managing Editor

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    What force holds these kids together? Judging by these smiles, it isn’t gravity.

    Why are those kids laughing?

    Ask a simple question like “Is it exciting to live in Jaffray?” and they just laugh.

    Maybe they’re laughing because Jaffray, British Columbia, is just a dot on the map, a wide spot in the road to somewhere else. Or because there are big-city apartment buildings with more poodles than Jaffray has people. Or because when you order from the nearest pizza place, the best they’ll guarantee is same-day delivery.

    Or maybe the youth of the Jaffray Branch are laughing because the question only seems dumb. Maybe they’ve got something great going here in Jaffray and they’re really laughing because they consider themselves lucky.

    Which just happens to be the case.

    Relativity explained

    Take the family connection, for example. In church we call each other brother and sister. But in Jaffray, just about everybody happens to be a cousin, too. That doesn’t mean everybody is related to everybody else, but most of the kids are descended from one or the other of three original LDS families in the area. So if you live in the Jaffray Branch, the odds are good that the young man sitting next to you at the sacrament table is a first cousin. Or the young woman you tent with at girls’ camp is a second cousin of some kind.

    Does all of this relativity make things easier or more difficult? “Way easier, I would think,” says Andrea Hawke, “because you have someone to be your friend. If you fight with them, it’s not like it can last years, because you have to be with them. And you always have someone to be with.”

    Still, there’s more to it than that. You can’t define the dynamics of this group by family relationships alone, because it’s really hard to tell where being related ends and being friends begins. Everybody seems to belong. Cody Hawke, 18, talking about the whole group, says simply “They’re great. I love ‘em all.”

    “We’re just like an extended family, like you have 20 more brothers and sisters.” But that closeness comes from more than just having some common ancestry. Adienne points out that she’s only related to fewer than half of the group. “I think it’s just because we’re all so close,” she goes on. “We do everything together. We go out together, we see movies together, we play together, go to school together. Part of it is probably because we’re related, but I think most of it is because we depend on each other so much.”

    Andrea Hawke adds, “With everybody else’s help, you’re sticking up for each other, not just for yourself. It really strengthens your testimony to have someone else helping you along while you’re helping them.”

    Little brother’s watching

    If these kids depend on each other, they also look out for each other. “Everybody knows everybody,” Jamie Sheridan explains. “If a person needs help, you know where they need it.” And they’re not necessarily shy about offering that help either. If someone “takes a little detour” as the Young Women president, Daralyn Thielen, puts it, “it’s like, you’re accountable for that choice, we know what you’ve done, we still love you, change your ways.”

    But it’s not really like everyone is watching to see if someone else is doing wrong. These kids focus on the positive. As you talk to them, you realize that they depend on each other for good examples, and that the older kids really care about being good role models for the younger ones. Cody, who has since left for college, recalls his own entry into the Young Men program: “There were two older boys, and that was it. They accepted me right away, took me on the stake basketball trip. I scored two points and they thought it was just the greatest thing. They got me going in Young Men, and ever since I’ve tried to do the same with the younger kids.”

    Morgan Dilts, 18, also remembers looking up to the older boys. And now, he says, “Being in the priests quorum, I’ve got to set an example, hopefully be a good role model.”

    It seems to be working. Josh Miller, 13, says, “I look up to them, the way they take control of things and the way they act. When things are getting rowdy, they kind of settle you down a bit.”

    Jordan Eliason, 13, laughs when he says he’s one of the outsiders (meaning not one of the cousins). He feels included in the group, and he too looks up to the older boys. “They’ve had lots of experience in the Church; they know what to do. They set pretty much a good example.”

    A sister act, too

    Example counts for a lot among the young women, too. Aimee Hawke, 13, says that the older girls always include her. “They are a big example, especially my sister (Andrea). She always tries her best in school and at church. She keeps the Church standards. She’s very spiritual.”

    Ashlee Wright, 13, adds that the way she is treated by the older girls affects how she, in turn, treats the younger girls. “We all try to treat them really nice and make them feel welcome.”

    One of the things that has encouraged even greater unity among the Young Women was a project they carried out last year called “friendship pals,” where each younger girl was teamed with one of the older girls. They braided friendship bracelets for each other, shared testimonies and experiences, learned about each other’s favorite foods, music, etc.

    Cakes walking

    And together? What is this group like when the boys and girls are together? There’s the same sharing of testimony and example. For instance, they all attend the same seminary class. There had been some discussion about splitting the group into two classes, but, as Mitch Thielen tells it, “then you’d miss some of the great things some of them say.” He learns a lot from the older students in his seminary class. “At the first of the year I was kind of nervous and didn’t want to say very much, but the older kids were always talking and giving good answers, and then I thought, if they’re doing it, why not?”

    Heard enough? Beginning to wonder when we’ll read about the town of Jaffray being taken up to heaven? Relax. In most ways, these young people are like LDS youth anywhere. When they are together, there’s plenty of good-natured teasing. And there are pranks. (Cody, if you are reading this, did you ever replace that cake you “borrowed” from Adienne?) And like any group who spends lots of time together, there are a few nicknames, like the one applied to a younger boy who fell into a pond during a Young Men activity. (Right, “Lily Pad?”)

    But there is something special here in Jaffray, too. It’s a feeling of family that goes way beyond having a set of common grandparents. It’s a tradition that any group of LDS youth could start in any ward or branch—a tradition of caring about each other. A tradition of the older setting an example for the younger. A tradition of mutual respect.

    Not everyone is fortunate enough to live in a place as beautiful as Jaffray. But everyone can work toward having the kind of Young Men and Young Women group that cares about each other, works together, shares testimonies, and laughs together from the sheer joy of being who they are.

    Photography by Larry A. Hiller

    That pile of logs (left inset) is the beginning of a cabin for Scout and Aaronic Priesthood activities. The boys will admit the cabin is kind of slow taking shape (in fact, the pile of logs is the shape right now), but the main thing is working and having fun together. Most activities involve the whole group, but individual friendships, like that between Brian Rolfson and Jordan Eliason (right inset), also thrive here. While the feeling of group is strong, individuals are also encouraged to stand out. Mogan Dills (far right) already competes on a rodeo circuit.

    One thing that has strengthened the bonds between the older girls and the younger ones is the “friendship pals” project. Lorelle Hawke and Ariene Totten (left inset) spent time together learning about each other’s hobbies, favorite foods, etc. Then they exchanged friendship bracelets. There’s always time for private thoughts like Serina Reay is thinking (right inset), but what’s really great about this group is the way relationship and friendship tend to blend together.