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Women connect with family history by learning to be Light Keepers at RootsTech

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Words like genealogy, records and anything to do with family history used to make Rhonna Farrer shut down, but now she embraces them, and she’s working to inspire other women to do the same.

When Light Keepers creators and organizers met together to plan the workshop for RootsTech 2018, Farrer said they had specific purposes in mind: First, to help women not feel guilty or overwhelmed about family history. Second, to give women a chance to have a “heart-turning experience” to empower them to take the first step.

More than 250 women gathered in a conference room in the Salt Palace Convention Center on March 1 to participate in the "Light Keepers: A Family History Experience for Women" workshop and find new ways to get involved in family history and preserve their stories.

‘Bite-size chunks’

It was an invitation to RootsTech four years ago that helped change Farrer's attitude. Though she had been invited to RootsTech before, Farrer, the award-winning app designer and founder of Rhonna Designs, said it was the invitation to RootsTech 2014 that finally got her.

“For some reason, this time in my life, I felt like I should go. I walked into RootsTech and there was an electricity I hadn’t felt,” she said.

Though she was at first overwhelmed and felt like a beginner, “the Spirit worked on me,” she said, “and I just started to learn that getting into family history is about taking bite-size chunks… one step at a time, one clue at a time, one experience at a time.”

She then met Crystal Farish, a professional genealogist who works at Ancestry, who Farrer said took her under her wing. The two teamed up to do family history retreats in Heber — Farrer would talk about photography and stories while Farish would cover the research side — and it was an experience that Farrer said sparked her love for family history.

“One of the things that I think a lot of people don’t recognize about family history is that it is so individual, and it’s going to look different for so many people, especially women, because we’re all so different, and we’re all in different seasons of our lives,” Farrer said.

Farrer was called as a FamilySearch global social media missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where she met Wendy Smedley, “our district leader, zone leader and mission president,” Farrer said jokingly. Smedley, marketing manager for FamilySearch, asked Farrer and the other missionaries, including Farish and Allison Kimball — who would also become a mastermind behind Light Keepers — to fast and pray about what they should do with their calling.

“I felt like there were two things specifically we were supposed to do. One was a workbook. The second thing was a conference,” Farrer said. “We kept feeling this draw and this pull to connect women with family history.”

After a year of spreading the message of family history and working to broaden the definition, they thought, “What if we could do something that was for RootsTech that was for LDS women — single, divorced, married, moms, grandmas — with a message that really resonated with them, focusing really on people that are beginners?” Smedley said. They approached Jen Allen, RootsTech event director, who was very supportive of the idea.

“We wanted to touch people’s hearts and let them know there are things they are already doing that are family history activities and how to enrich those and add some more,” Smedley said.

Being a light keeper

“The Lord has really directed what he wants right now and who this is for, what it looks like and feels like,” Farrer said.

One goal behind the event was to help women understand that family history can be a family activity. “With doing some research, we’ve really learned how important women are on influencing family history activities in the home. That’s another reason why we want to try this out,” Smedley said.

Farrer credits Farish with the idea of the name of the workshop. “The second she said ‘light keepers,’ I just looked at her, and again, I felt electricity. I knew that was the name,” Farrer said.

“This whole workbook and the whole event is about finding your part and what you can do to keep the light in your family,” Farrer said. “And it’s going to look different for everybody. That’s what I think is so awesome about family history. It’s just as unique as we are as individuals and families.”

Smedley and Farrer have worked closely with Libby Lewis, special events coordinator for RootsTech, who said being involved in a new event like Light Keepers is what she finds exciting about her job. The name of the event also holds special meaning to her.

“The castle’s keep is the most fortified part of the castle,” Lewis wrote in an email. “The light is our family, our ancestors, our pictures, our stories and our memories. The light keeper is the one, to me, who is charged to share, invigorate and fortify her family with the strength found in her family.”

Smedley has found this idea to be true in her own family. She said though not all of her children have chosen to remain in the LDS Church, she has found value in telling family stories.

“Family history is a safe subject. We can talk about pioneer stories, family vacations and all of those things connect us,” she said.

‘A heart-turning experience’

Presenters Farrer and Kimball opened the workshop on Thursday at RootsTech 2018 by speaking about the Spirit of Elijah, the meaning behind light keepers and their personal experiences with family history. More than 250 women gathered in a conference room with laptops, tablets and smartphones in hand ready and eager to learn more about family history.

Each participant was given a workbook “Light Keepers: A Family History Experience Guide” to reference during the workshop. The workbook, covered in colorful flowers to remind women of their individual and unique beauty, includes quotes from general authorities and personal experiences from women about family history.

Other speakers gave presentations during the workshop. Si Foster, who runs the A Bountiful Kitchen blog spoke about creating family recipe stories from specific dishes or treats, like simple chocolate chip cookies, that are associated with memories and traditions. Lizzy Jensen, founder of The Small Seed faith blog, spoke about finding “magic” in family history and the promised blessings to families. Creative director and blogger Heidi Swapp gave a presentation titled “Your Story Matters” and spoke about her experience of losing her teenage son to suicide.

“You are witnessing miracles right now,” Farrer said during the workshop, noting the energy and spirit she felt from the women in the room. “We are trail blazing. This is a pioneer effort right here.”

The workshop also walked attendees through tools and features on FamilySearch.com, while family history experts stood close by to offer a helping hand. Presenters also talked about the connection between family history and temple covenants, missionary work and faith in the Lord. “Now is the time,” Farrer told participants. “You matter and your story matters.”

Arlene Haymond, from Spanish Fork, attended the Light Keepers workshop and said she left the event feeling more empowered to do family history. She is the only member of the LDS Church in her family.

“I learned just how important it is to keep those memories, even when my family makes fun of me for making them take pictures all the time and making books for them,” Haymond said. “I kind of feel validated a little bit for what I thought was ‘fluffy stuff’ but it really is worthwhile.”

Kim Lee, also from Spanish Fork, had never heard of Light Keepers before Haymond, her friend, invited her. Lee said the workshop was “time well spent” and hopes it happens again next year.

“I realized there are so many things out there for us to use, and it’s a lot easier than I thought. I’m excited to be able to go back and start implementing a few of the ideas,” she said. “It’s the stories, the little things, that just bind you to people.”

The workshop also included an evening after-party that featured booths on creative journaling, photo development and training with the FamilySearch mobile app.