21949_000_018Cousins are family—it’s automatic. But they can also be great friends, as these teens discovered at a special family reunion held just for them.
“You’re tagged,” Macsen Viehweg yells. Rebecca Ray’s feet slide out from under her, and she grabs at the nearest person for support, starting a chain reaction of bodies falling down into the irrigation ditch. They all laugh good-naturedly as best friends do. Just days before, many of these friends were only names on a family group sheet. Now the word cousin has taken on new meaning to the Ray family teens.
“We had so much fun,” recalls Melanie Soelberg from Mesa, Arizona. “I love being with my family. It was so cool to get to know all my cousins.”
Each year Melanie’s grandparents, Oakley and Janet Ray of the Mesa First Ward, Mesa North Arizona Stake, try to get the families of their 10 children together, but this year was special because only the youth from 12 to 18 were invited. “Before, the younger children would play around us, and the adults would visit, but we weren’t getting as close to our teenagers as we wanted to,” says Grandma Ray.
So they decided to hold an “Especially for Rays” reunion at their daughter’s home in Weiser, Idaho, and sent each teenager an invitation with a list of 10 activity ideas to rank in order of preference. Then grandchildren ShaRee and Chad Walker, of the Weiser First Ward, tallied the results and organized four days of fun, excitement, and spirituality for the group.
Each morning began with a devotional. “Two of our uncles are seminary teachers, so the lessons were great. One morning we talked about how we must continually work at being our best because Satan is trying so hard to turn us away from the things that are the most important,” says ShaRee. “My favorite part was discussing gospel principles with each other and being taught by people we loved and respected.”
While the devotionals focused on spiritual matters, the days’ remaining activities kept the teens at a fast pace: horseback riding, floating down the Weiser River, playing tag football in a water-soaked field, going on scavenger hunts, and enjoying each other’s company.
Fun and games weren’t the only activities, however. The Rays wanted their grandchildren to experience the joy of service, so one day the youth went to a ward member’s ranch, where they branded and vaccinated sheep. “Although it was a service project for us, they were really the ones doing the service by letting all of us come and help,” says ShaRee.
“All the older cousins made a real effort to include the younger ones during this project,” says Melanie, one of the city slickers. “We had to hold the sheep so tight that we were really sore afterward, so we sat in a big circle and gave each other back rubs! The whole four days were like that. We were always looking out for each other.”
The one recurring memory of each participant is the love and respect they developed for each other. “The great thing was learning the strengths of all our cousins,” says Amy Soelberg. “One cousin read her scriptures and prayed every night and morning without fail. Now, whenever I’m tired or want to sleep in, I think about her. I pray that by following her example I can become more like her.”
Examples are not in short supply in the Ray family. “The highlight of it all was our grandparents,” says Chad. “Their devotional made us realize how lucky we are to be members of the Church and to be part of the Ray family. They told each one of us what a special part we play in the family and in the world. My grandparents are the best role models I could have.”
And the chain of role models continues as four of the participants received mission calls. One cousin just left for Panama City, Panama, and the other three will be at the Missionary Training Center together this summer.
Plans are already being made for the next “Especially for Rays” reunion. “I can’t wait to turn 12 and be able to go,” says Jenica Soelberg.
In fact, every eligible grandchild is looking forward to the next teen reunion, where best friends will have four fun-filled days together again. “I’ve always said I wanted cousin to be my grandchildren’s favorite word,” says Grandma Ray, “and I believe the Lord inspired us to help make that happen.”
Not Just for Grown-ups
When my Young Women adviser suggested I do a Laurel value project about my family, I immediately knew we needed a family reunion.
I soon found out that planning a reunion takes time, persistence, and some hard work. It doesn’t hurt to have help from family members either. Here are some ideas that worked for me:
* Select a date. Choose a date well in advance for better attendance.
* Choose a meeting place. Use parks, pavilions, gymnasiums, or even backyards.
* Decide on a menu. Make food assignments or go potluck.
* Send out invitations. Make a list of all the relatives. Leave no one out.
* Plan activities that everyone will enjoy. Plan for swimming, board games, and art projects, just to name a few.
* Include a memento or souvenir of the reunion for each participant. Some families have screen-printed T-shirts. Others offer door prizes. The prizes can be as simple or ambitious as photos, scrapbooks, or recipe books.
* Don’t forget to send thank-you notes. Be sure to thank everyone who helped you with the planning and preparation or who donated their time or talents.
My reunion was hard work but so satisfying. I realize now what family reunions are all about.