Category: Guest Blogger

Advocating for Diversity

Editor’s Note: This is one of a series of guest posts highlighting the ways in which intergenerational connections have inspired young genealogists. To learn more about how the NextGen Genealogy Network encourages young genealogists to build connections between all generations, see the NextGen Connection Challenge.

For some, joining a new community can be exhilarating – what could be more thrilling than an opportunity to interact and make new connections? For others, this question would only be uttered with heaps of sarcasm – could there be anything worse than interacting with strangers and making small talk? I happen to fall somewhere in between these two extremes – an introverted genealogist, who also enjoys learning from and teaching others. As a result, my first endeavor to join a genealogical society began with a mix of reluctance and anticipation.

My first meeting with the local genealogical society took place at the city library. The group was small and unassuming, and I was pleased (though not surprised) to discover that I was the youngest attendee. Because I have always held a deep reverence for my elders, and particularly enjoy listening to their recounts of the past, it was a reassuring setting. At the close of the meeting, I was asked to join the board. The invitation was a surprise, and a kind gesture that immediately made me feel welcome. In short, day one with my new community was a success.

Fast-forward 3 years. After many more meetings, a few frustrations, and a great deal of learning and growth: I have learned how better to collaborate with members of a different generation, have proposed technological solutions to problems (some met with excitement and others with bewilderment), and have learned research tips from experienced researchers.  It has been a fulfilling journey. However, I have also discovered what I feel is missing from my small genealogical community: diversity. Though I have learned to appreciate society members’ form of interacting and their passion for sharing family stories, I have also realized that our group is very homogeneous – a circumstance that inevitably moderates the depth and richness of our interactions.

At one point, I considered looking elsewhere for this diversity. I thought my time would be better spent working with a group already successful in diversifying its membership. And then I thought better of it – as a valued member of my society, I have an opportunity to propose a new direction for accomplishing our mission. I can leverage my newfound friendships to cultivate collaboration and innovation within and across generations. It’s an exciting prospect.

And with the lessons I have learned over the past 3 years, I believe I will be successful. I am looking forward to the challenge – and the inevitable outcome of increased diversity (of people and of thought) in our little society. Perhaps even this introvert can make a difference!

Lisa Medina is a devoted family historian with experience researching American and Mexican genealogy. She lovingly shares much of this research with her family – a husband of 8 years and a captivated 5-month old son. When not researching, Lisa is a busy University Registrar. She is also currently a Board member of the Escondido Genealogical Society.


An Afternoon with Dad

Editor’s Note: This is one of a series of guest posts highlighting the ways in which intergenerational connections have inspired young genealogists. To learn more about how the NextGen Genealogy Network encourages young genealogists to build connections between all generations, see the NextGen Connection Challenge.

A few years ago, my father and I spent a Saturday going through boxes and envelopes containing our family history. His mother, my Mema Eula, was a history buff and amateur genealogist and kept a lot of  family things to pass down to my father. After Mema passed away, her cedar chest with all of this collected history was taken to a storage warehouse.  At the time, we really didn’t have an understanding or appreciation of the contents inside.

The first item that drew our eyes when we opened the cedar chest was an old Whitman’s chocolate box.  As I wiped off the layers of dust from the lid, I couldn’t help but think of the saying, “Life is like a box of chocolates,” and laughed a little at the irony. I lifted the lid and wondered what family treasure it might hold, if any. I prayed it wouldn’t contain fifty-year-old chocolate covered fruit as the lid described!

My fingers rested on the piece of paper that laid on top. Gingerly unfolding the stained and tattered paper, I wondered how it had survived for years in this chocolate box under such poor conditions. I worried it would fall apart in my hands. Thankfully it didn’t, and to our excitement we discovered the paper was a marriage license for my great-great-grandparents, John Goode and Henri Ellen Roberson, dated September 1880!  They both were twenty-two years of age and from Garner Township in Union County, Arkansas.

Anticipation building at what we might find next, we opened a smaller box with the name of a Little Rock jewelry store, long since gone, written across the lid. Inside we found a lovely cameo pendant, a locket with the photo of a woman and baby from around the turn of the century, a gold wedding band, a broken beaded necklace, and several other jewelry remnants. All prized possessions for someone at one time, no doubt.

The rest of the cedar chest contained letters, other boxes of keepsakes, yearbooks, and photos. Lots of photos. People we knew and people we didn’t.  The mystery lady from the locket turned up several more times in larger, more stunning photos. Her side profile revealed a long straight nose and perfectly arched brow. Her beautiful dark hair was swept back in a loose, wavy bun. Fashionable ladies at the turn of the century wore such styles, and this helped us narrow down who she might be in the family tree.

One other woman appeared in a Civil War era photo. Having traced my family history quite extensively, I knew that my father’s side came to Arkansas from Yorkville after the Civil War. Wearing a dark dress with a voluminous skirt, the woman in the photograph holds a Holy Bible in one hand. Her face is pleasant, if expressionless, which is so often the case with old photos like these. We thought about who she could possibly be. Which great grandmother is she? Where does she fit in the family tree? The photo jacket named J. R. Shorb, Yorkville, South Carolina. Once we went home, we did some research on Schorb, a prominent photographer in Yorkville in the mid-1850s until his death. Given the dates of his work and the age of the woman in the photo, we determined that the woman was most likely either my third great grandmother, Cynthia Louise Hall Garrison, or my second great grandmother, Mary Jane Simril Garrison. Mary Jane moved with her husband, Major Brown Garrison, to Bradley County, Arkansas around 1870.

As we went through the remaining photos and other items in the chest, I learned many things that I didn’t know about my grandparents. Almost every item brought up a memory for Dad and a story I hadn’t heard before. We read letters my grandfather wrote during World War II while he was stationed in the South Pacific. I learned that my grandfather, an engineer by trade, loved to draw floor plans, which is something I have always loved to do myself. I learned about how my grandmother, a teacher, managed to raise two wonderful children on her own after my grandfather died unexpectedly from a brain aneurysm. I learned of my father’s childhood in the oil boom town of El Dorado, Arkansas. Of him laying highway asphalt one summer, in the oppressive Arkansas heat and humidity, to earn money for college. I learned things that amused me, things that surprised me. Things that made me proud. Things that made my grandparents and great grandparents more than just names on the family tree. Most importantly, I spent a fun and meaningful afternoon with my father.

Beth Garison Wylie, MPA, is a genealogy blogger at When she is not researching family history, she’s busy juggling the crazy but rewarding life of a healthcare administrator, wife, and mother of two littles. She is currently a member of the Oklahoma Genealogical Society Board of Directors and the Secretary for the NextGen Genealogy Network’s Leadership Team.


An Envelope Named “Jack”

Editor’s Note: This is one of a series of guest posts highlighting the ways in which intergenerational connections have inspired young genealogists. To learn more about how the NextGen Genealogy Network encourages young genealogists to build connections between all generations, see the NextGen Connection Challenge.

Genealogy started, for me, as a lonely hobby; many late-night hours of reading and researching those who lived before my time. My grandfather was adopted, so our family tree came to an abrupt halt prior to 1934. There’s a certain emptiness that comes with those broken branches. I feel it most on the holidays, when the gatherings seem to get smaller each year.

It was a particularly long summer in 2015 when I cracked open a blue plastic bin full of photos my mother inherited. So few were labeled and even fewer contained familiar faces. I found a yellowed envelope sandwiched between tattered albums and bibles. In scrawling pencil, someone had written “Jack” across the front. The name wasn’t familiar to me at the time.

I opened the envelope with care, revealing a collection of photos from the mid-1930s. My Grandpa Joe, around age five, posed with several people I didn’t recognize in front of a cherry blossom tree. He squinted in the sunlight with his freckles congregating in the crinkles of his nose as he squirmed from one image to the next. He was wearing a sailor suit, likely in honor of his adoptive father, a steamship captain.

With no further leads, the photos returned to their place in the dusty bin, forgotten for many months.

A DNA test brought me back to the envelope called “Jack.” I built an adoptive family tree on Ancestry and was surprised to find DNA matches with the same people in their trees. It suggested my grandfather was adopted by his relatives. I recognized the username of a second cousin match; it was a surname I had seen on the back of a Polaroid in the blue bin: Schommer. I reached out to this “Schommer” cousin and learned that her grandfather, who I knew from birth records as John, was known to his loved ones as Jack.

Excitedly, I recovered the yellowed envelope from the blue bin and scanned photo after photo. “Schommer,” who I came to know as Trish, recognized everyone standing in front of that cherry blossom tree. They were Jack’s family, meeting their nephew for the first time in 1935. The nephew, of course, was my five-year-old grandfather.

We exchanged emails full of stories. The CC list grew and grew as I was introduced to more new cousins who joined in to see the photographs.

“Jack is still alive,” one cousin said. “Jack’s son, Jack. He’s turning 90 this year. Loretta is turning 92.”

Jack Jr., left, and Loretta, behind Jack Jr., with five-year-old Joe, in the cherry blossom photos in 1935.

Jack Jr. and Loretta lived in Portland, Oregon, along with a few of the cousins. After some coordination, we agreed to meet.

My trip to Oregon was incredibly memorable. Jack Jr.’s daughter was a gracious host who welcomed this “NextGen Genealogist” with open arms to her home. There, I met Jack Jr. and Loretta, who shared their memories of our family. We exchanged photos and brought each other closer to the loved ones we had lost. I learned new things about my ancestors that no document or image could ever tell me. It was a special day.

My greatest memento of meeting my family from the photographs was taking a new picture together with Jack and Loretta, seventy years later, sitting between them in place of my grandfather. The yellowed envelope called “Jack” became much more than a collection of memories. It formed new ones, reconnecting three generations who have stayed in touch ever since.

Katie Welka is a tech-savvy old soul who enjoys traveling, writing, crafting, and family research. She is a member of the California Genealogical Society and shares genealogy tips on her website, She works in Silicon Valley and loves unraveling the mysteries of her Sicilian, Polish, Scottish, and Irish ancestors.


Remembering Granny: When Secondary Sources Become Primary

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of guest posts highlighting the ways in which intergenerational connections have inspired young genealogists. To learn more about how the NextGen Genealogy Network encourages young genealogists to build connections between all generations, see the NextGen Connection Challenge

Often in family history research, we get caught up in names, dates, and places of people we never knew, but this time in my searching I found more about a connection I had to someone I knew well.

I remember growing up that my Granny, Dorothy Marie (Verbeke) Smith, was into genealogy. Unfortunately, she had died before I became deeply involved in the field myself. We never really got the chance to talk about our shared family history while she was alive. I do recall her occasionally telling stories around the dinner table about the struggles her father (my great grandfather) went through as a recent Belgian immigrant trying to start a new life in America. I was young, so I listened intently, but I never thought to write any of these stories down. I did eventually get a copy of her genealogy binder after her death, but it was mostly filled with names and dates and didn’t have any deeper details of our ancestor’s lives.

Recently, I was looking up her obituary, and when I typed her name into Google, I noticed among the search results a page that is very familiar to me from working on genealogy for others:’s RootsWeb mailing list archiver. These pages are collections of mailing lists and exchanges between researchers working on particular surnames and family lines. They often provide hints, though some more useful than others, about shared ancestors and family legends. Typically, when coming across these pages through frantic Google searching of surnames and their spelling variations, I am very cautious about the information found within. These are, after all, secondary sources, and most things don’t usually provide citations other than an occasional reference to a vital record or paper tucked away in a courthouse. In fact, I spend a lot of time trying to debunk the family myths that these sites can perpetuate.

This time, however, on my screen, I saw my own granny’s old email address associated with many of these posts on RootsWeb. While her married name was common, her maiden name, Verbeke, revealed her Belgian heritage and she posted frequently looking for leads on this family in Watervliet, Belgium.

Reading through these posts, I learned about alleged family rivals between my Verbeke ancestors and the family my great grandmother eventually married into. She recounts her successes in borrowing microfilm from the Family History Library and struggles with ordering a vital record from Springfield, Illinois. From these secondary sources, I was able to learn firsthand about her quest to trace her Belgian roots. I am thankful I can now have this insight about her research even though we can never talk about it in person. These pages became primary sources that document her life and her hobby that also help me connect with her after her death through our shared enthusiasm for genealogy.

This experience was also a good reminder of how important it is to connect with older family members and document their stories the next time you see them. Something as simple as making a recording on your smartphone while talking to relatives can create new primary sources about your family’s past to preserve for future generations.

Kristin Britanik is a genealogist and digitization professional based out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At her day job, she is in charge of digitization at the Andy Warhol Museum. Previously, she worked in archival digitization for and was a researcher at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. She writes on her blog at