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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.


Faces of NextGen LIVE! Meet Randy Whited

The NextGen Genealogy Network’s Faces of NextGen LIVE! is a new feature hosted by Education Coordinator Eric Wells. In this recorded interview, get to know Randy Whited of Texas:

Want to say hello to your fellow young genealogists during a fun and informal interview with Eric? Let us know at

Don’t forget to bookmark our YouTube Channel to keep up with the latest on Faces of NextGen LIVE!


Faces of NextGen: Meet Ariana Fiorello

Ariana Fiorello, 22, Massachusetts

What five words would you use to describe yourself? Passionate. Adventurous. Sympathetic. Linguistic. Fluid.

Why genealogy? Simple answer, it chose me. I was adopted just six weeks after birth. I attended schools where family projects were important. We had to do pedigree charts and Punnett squares to analyze genetics. While most kids in my class could use themselves or were solid lines on their family trees, I was a dotted line. I had many questions, but not answers. It was not until my senior year of high school that I would get to ask the questions I had been longing to ask. When I connected with my biological parents–who are not together–I learned so much. I learned so much about them and my birth. I also learned about my ancestors, and those are the stories that truly fascinated me. I had never felt connected to my African American heritage. I was raised by a single Italian American woman, who tried her best to submerge me in the African American culture, but couldn’t quite do so. At the end of the day she was Italian and we celebrated the Italian way. I now get the best of both worlds, and I love both cultures. I am a part of both. However, genealogy taught me that genealogy is not just about blood, it also about those who love and care for you and are your family. To me this is an important factor that I want to instill in some of my clients who are adopted or who don’t know who their biological parents are. Our adoptive families are our families. Those ancestors are important because without them, we would not be with the parents that we know to be mom or dad.

What’s the coolest discovery you’ve made? The coolest discovery that I have made has to do with my own personal genealogy. While sifting through some census records, I began to notice one ancestor of mine whose parents stood out. In each census record for my fourth great-grandfather, Harry Batiste, his parents were recorded as having been born in Africa. Harry’s own birth continued to fluctuate between Louisiana, Mississippi, and Africa, but his parents’ never wavered. This was a cool discovery because I was able to conclude that his parents were born in Africa, making my fourth great grandfather the closest direct ancestor that I could document back to the “motherland” of Africa. Through further research, DNA, I was able to confirm a great percent of my DNA comes from West Africa. 

What are you working on this week? While I am currently working on my book, I am also preparing to apply for the Board of Certification for Genealogists. I am studying up and making sure I have everything I need so that I can be confident and comfortable with my application choice. I am also looking into ICAPGen and am considering which region and specialty to focus on. I have many specialty interests, but I want to go in with the one I have “perfected” in a sense.

What’s the number one secret to your success in genealogy? The number one secret to my success in genealogy is passion. Genealogy is truly my passion. I don’t do it because I have to. I do it because I want to. It is something I love to do and I enjoy the looks on others faces when I divulge something new and interesting, whether it is good or bad. I don’t do genealogy for the money. I do it for the personal. I take pride in learning more about the ancestors who paved a way for me. I feel fulfilled when I can give people a sense of belonging and purposes. Genealogy is personal, but also global and I like that it connects us in unique ways.

What superpower would you want to help you uncover your family history? If I could have one superpower that would help me uncover my family history, it would be the power to automatically know maiden names. This would help me because I usually get stuck with women who marry. Sometimes there are no documents providing the maiden name, which then makes continuing the research a bit difficult. I’d also like to be able to apply this tool to others. When doing research for clients sometimes it is easier to know maiden names, especially when some clients know very little aside from their parents or grandparents.

What are we most likely to find you doing when you’re not researching family history? When I’m not researching family history, I’m usually writing about it. I am currently working on a memoir about how genealogy has affected my own life. In 2016, through writing about my genealogy, an adopted sibling reached out to me. Things went a bit crazy, and we are all still learning and processing the events that took place. Hopefully soon I will be done and will have the book published for others to read and learn from our experience.

The NextGen Genealogy Network is made up of young genealogists with diverse backgrounds, interests, and experiences. Faces of NextGen showcases a different member of our community each month. If you would like to be considered for an upcoming feature, simply complete our questionnaire and submit a selfie.


Faces of NextGen LIVE! Meet Mike Quackenbush

The NextGen Genealogy Network’s Faces of NextGen LIVE! is a new feature hosted by Education Coordinator Eric Wells. In this recorded interview, get to know Mike Quackenbush, a young genealogist from Ontario, Canada:

Want to say hello to your fellow young genealogists during a fun and informal interview with Eric? Let us know at

Don’t forget to bookmark our YouTube Channel to keep up with the latest on Faces of NextGen LIVE!