Deciphering handwritten names found in old records and making that information searchable online — a practice known as indexing — may not be a favorite activity for teenagers these days.
But when you know Michelle Thornton’s story and how indexing has blessed her life, perhaps more young people might consider giving the family history activity a try.
Born with hand deformities and VACTERL association with hydrocephalus, a rare genetic disorder that affects multiple anatomical systems, which her mother simplified as “multiple health problems,” the tech-savvy 14-year-old girl from eastern Oregon was inspired by leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to learn how to index.
In the last two years, Thornton has completed more than 10,000 names. She tells her story in an 8-minute video featured during RootsTech Connect.
When asked to describe the biggest change in her daughter, Elizabeth Thornton beamed with motherly pride.
“She’s always been a bright, happy, wonderful person, but it’s like, she’s getting more bright and more happy and more able to share her awesomeness,” her mother said.
Michelle Thornton’s interest in family history work started with a youth temple trip on her 12th birthday. Then she heard President Russell M. Nelson invite Latter-day Saint youths to enlist in the Lord’s youth battalion and help to gather Israel.
A short time later, her bishop called all the youth in their ward congregation to index names on FamilySearch.org.
Thornton was eager and willing, but was it easy to get started? She shakes her head with an emphatic, “No.”
Just accessing her FamilySearch account was frustrating. She kept getting “username or password was incorrect” prompts on her screen.
Once Thornton got past that hurdle, it took some time to learn to read cursive handwriting and navigate the overall process. She said her “expert” grandparents joined her via video chat to answer questions and help her figure it out.
While learning, Thornton found inspiration to keep going when her grandmother related an experience about finding an ancestor because someone had indexed a record of him.
“The more I did it, the easier it became,” Thornton wrote in an email to the Deseret News. “Then all of sudden people started asking me questions about indexing and I knew the answers or at least how to find the answers, and that was even more exciting. I always thought if they asked me to do it, then of course I could do it.”
In 2019, Thornton indexed 1,000 names. Her production dramatically increased during the “isolation” of the COVID-19 pandemic when she indexed 6,000 names from April to October 2020, fulfilling the “My 150” challenge issued by the church’s Young Women general presidency as part of the organization’s 150th anniversary.
As of this week, Thornton has indexed 10,357 names. She has set a goal to break 20,000 by the end of 2021.
“This is my favorite thing to do, so I don’t really think about how much time I spend doing it,” she wrote.
Through the hours of sitting on her bed, typing away on her laptop computer to convert handwritten World War I draft cards and other documents into digital records, Thornton has noticed positive changes in her life. She feels healthier. She is kinder to others. She wants to do more good in the world.
“How has indexing not blessed my life?!?” Thornton wrote. “So many of the blessings I have received I feel like are because of the promises given to people who help in family history work. Personally, I have seen myself do better in school. Some of the subjects I used to struggle with are much easier now. My health has improved, that’s a big deal to me. ... I have more patience with my family. I have built better relationships with extended family. And this last year, like so many people I have had a lot of anxiety about COVID, and when I index, I feel better and my anxiety is gone. So I would say the biggest blessing is the peace I feel when I index.”
When Thornton completed her “My 150” project, her mother posted a photo and summary of her accomplishment on social media. Somebody at FamilySearch saw it and suggested the family produce a video for RootsTech Connect, which they did.
Not only has Michelle’s passion for indexing rubbed off on her little brothers, who already want their own individual FamilySearch accounts, but sharing her story has brought unity to her extended family, some of which aren’t members of the Latter-day Saint faith. It has also touched the hearts of many others, some of which feel encouraged to start indexing despite their own personal struggles.
“We’ve received a lot of messages and emails from friends and family just so excited saying, ‘Can we share her video? We want other youth to see this, we want to spread the inspiration that we feel.’” Elizabeth Thornton said. “We think it’s pretty neat.”
As she observes her daughter’s drive to index, Elizabeth Thornton is mindful of Elder David A. Bednar’s October 2011 general conference remarks and how his message applies to Michelle and other young people.
“It is no coincidence that FamilySearch and other tools have come forth at a time when young people are so familiar with a wide range of information and communication technologies,” said Elder Bednar, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “Your fingers have been trained to text and tweet to accelerate and advance the work of the Lord— not just to communicate quickly with your friends. The skills and aptitude evident among many young people today are a preparation to contribute to the work of salvation.”
Doing the Lord’s work is Michelle’s true desire, her mother said.
“This isn’t about making herself look amazing, she is doing it to help others,” Elizabeth Thornton said. “Her focus has always been very much on the gathering of Israel.”