As family historians, we know the power of learning the stories of our ancestors. We’ve discovered how they overcame losing loved ones, economic struggles, mental and physical challenges, and more. We research from the comfort of our homes with many resources like computers, the internet, and access to records through online databases. What about the homeless, who are simply struggling for survival? Can learning their ancestor stories help them as well? In this guest post, I invite you to read about a non-profit organization that is connecting homeless families with their ancestors. The goal? To strengthen them in their own challenges and give them hope for the future.
I discovered Olive Branch Connections, through its co-founder, Sarah Clift. We had worked together in the ProGen study group and when I learned about her work I had to know more. I hope you enjoy reading Sarah’s story. If you have been searching for a way to make a difference in the world, perhaps this is an opportunity to donate your time and/or resources.
Olive Branch Connections
By Sarah Clift
As genealogists, we understand the power of knowing our family histories and discovering names and stories that have been lost to our families. Researchers at Emory University discovered that teens who knew more about their family history had “higher levels of emotional well-being, and also higher levels of identity achievement, even when controlling for general level of family functioning.” (1)
I draw on my ancestors for strength often. I keep their stories in my heart, and when I’m going through a hard time, they give me hope. They were not perfect, but they inspire me. They remind me that a life story is full of ups and downs and that I, like them, can persevere.
I have always loved watching genealogy shows where celebrities learn the incredible stories of their ancestors. Last year, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool to start a nonprofit that provides free family history research services to people who can’t afford them?” But with four young daughters, I thought I wouldn’t pursue this dream for a long time. Plus, I had no experience with nonprofit organizations.
A few months later, my friend Tara MacDonald asked me if I would give her lessons on how to do family history research. I learned that she volunteered at a homeless shelter and wanted to give the families graduating out of the program the gift of their family histories. Her hope was that these people would learn about their amazing ancestors and draw strength from their stories. She wanted these people to know that, although they were leaving the shelter and all of its programs, they would never be alone with their ancestors as their guardian angels.
So while I thought that starting a nonprofit would be something I did many years in the future, the Lord was telling me, “No, not then. Now.” And although I didn’t have experience with nonprofits, Tara did. I knew that the Lord brought us together, and I knew we would make a great team.
The first shelter that we brought our program to was Saint John’s Program for Real Change in Sacramento, California, which provides safe shelter and a rehabilitative program to women and children. When we first walked into the shelter and told the women that we wanted to research their family histories for them, we didn’t know what the response would be. But every woman we approached was so excited for the possibility of learning more about her ancestors.
The first step for a client to receive family history research services from us is for her to fill out a pedigree chart and return it to us (along with other forms that give us permission to research her family history). The information on this pedigree chart is the starting point for our volunteer researchers who use it to expand the client’s family tree. Sometimes the starting point is minimal with only the client’s parents listed. But the volunteers research to the second-great-grandparent level, and sometimes further. We are not just looking for names and dates; we are looking for stories. After the research is complete, we compile a packet for the client. The packet includes the family tree, interesting documents about her ancestors (including pictures, news articles, vital records, etc.), a section for the client to write her own story and her hopes for her future, and a special letter from one of the client’s ancestors.
For the letter, Tara studies the compiled research and chooses a particularly inspirational ancestor. She uses real components from the ancestor’s life and historical context to write the ancestor’s story. Using the ancestor’s voice, Tara also tells the client to always have hope and to know she is never alone. The result is a beautiful letter that gives the client a strong connection to her ancestor. Also, professional voice actors volunteer their services to record performances of the letters so the clients have audio versions.
To enhance the discoveries, FamilyTreeDNA provides the clients with free Family Finder DNA test kits. The clients enjoy learning about their ethnicity estimates and seeing their lists of DNA matches.
We then present the packet to the client. Watching them discover their ancestors is a sacred experience.
We started our program this year, and we are already expanding nationwide. Our program depends on volunteer researchers, so the more researchers we have, the more people we can serve. Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer researcher can fill out the application at this link: https://olivebranchconnections.org/donate/. People can also use that link to donate money for materials and administrative costs. For more information, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We are amazed at how quickly this program has taken off, and we look forward to seeing more miracles as we participate in this important work.
Sarah Clift is a co-founder and the head genealogist of Olive Branch Connections. She earned a certificate in genealogical research from Boston University and has a Bachelor of General Studies degree with an emphasis in writing from Brigham Young University. She has her own genealogy research business, Past and Present Family Research, which specializes in adoption and unknown parentage cases. She also teaches online family history research courses at Brigham Young University-Idaho.
(1) Journal of Family Life, “Children Benefit if They Know About Their Relatives, Study Finds,” news release, 3 March 2010, Emory University (http://shared.web.emory.edu/emory/news/releases/2010/03/children-benefit-if-they-know-about-their-relatives-study-finds.html : accessed 18 December 2020); citing Robyn Fivush and Marshall Duke, “Do You Know? The power of family history in adolescent identity and well-being,” 2010 research paper funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and conducted at the Emory Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life (MARIAL). The link to the original paper is unavailable.
Thank you for sharing this. What a powerful way to make a meaningful difference in someone’s life, something that will last longer than a meal !
I agree! I love everything about this initiative.
As a retired genealogy librarian I regularly helped a homeless patron research his family using our resources. He would come in when we opened every morning carrying a plastic bag with his “research materials” and he would spend the entire time we were open in his research. He took the research very seriously, pursing all options and critically reviewing other published research on his family. This pattern went on for over a year and we grew to know Jim really well. One day he walked up to the reference desk and asked to speak to both my colleague and myself. He said, “your patience and pleasant support has helped me redevelop a sense of worth over this last year and I finally decided that since I was so interested in my ancestors I should reconnect with my own children. I’ve done that and my daughter has sent me a bus ticket to live with her in Atlanta. And it wouldn’t have been possible without your help this past year. Thank you and know that you have made a tremendous difference in several lives.” We were so touched. And for over 10 years, Jim sent us regular post cards and holiday cards giving us little snippets of his new life. Finally just a couple of years ago, his daughter wrote to tell us Jim had passed away and to thank us “for the gift of my father for these last few years.” I still tear up when I think about the impact doing his genealogy research had on this family’s life.
What a wonderful story. Thanks for sharing!