The Santa Barbara County Genealogical Society held its annual Family History Month open house Sunday — its first in-person event since the pandemic’s inception.
The society, 600 members strong, has been holding events via Zoom over the past year and a half and opening its library during abbreviated operating hours.
During this time, some members have died or moved away, and new members have joined — even from outside Santa Barbara County.
The society’s volunteers are hoping the gradual return to in-person programs will bring more members of all ages.
Rosa Avolio, one of the genealogical society’s board members, said a misconception is that the society focuses on local history. Members have resources to dig into worldwide ancestry.
“Our members aren’t necessarily members because they’re researching Santa Barbara ancestors. They’re members because they want to learn how to do genealogy research anywhere in the world,” she said.
There are special-interest groups, so members can delve into Irish, Italian, German, African-American genealogy and more.
Sunday, members presented an exhibit titled “Santa Barbara African American Life, Culture and Contributions, 1890s-1990s.”
One project contributor said she was moved to tears as she saw the hardships faced by Black Santa Barbarians, a population that has waned after gentrification.
The large presentation began digital and stretched across a whiteboard Sunday, highlighting key figures in Santa Barbara history.
One such person is Bill Downey, the first Black reporter at the Santa Barbara News-Press. His son worked on the project.
Jeannine Fox, who volunteers on the outreach team, enjoyed working on the exhibit as one who loves history.
“What I found and even in the genealogy society is a lot of history and a lot of genealogy go hand in hand. And I really like that because I love history,” she said.
Volunteers often enjoy researching other people’s families with them or curating timelines and lists for events such as Sunday’s.
Alex Grzywacki spent a lot of time Sunday at a display dedicated to local soldiers in the Civil War. He is the senior vice commander of Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.
He is part of a group that cleans up a Civil War veteran cemetery annually.
Suzi Calderon Bellman is the great granddaughter of one of the soldiers in the First Battalion of Native California Volunteers. Her great grandmother was a cook for the battalion.
She missed this pivotal piece of her family’s history until she began researching at the Presidio of Santa Barbara. She honors her great grandparents as key Presidio members and bought bricks with her parents’ names at the Genealogical Society.
Her Union ties gained more meaning when she married her late husband, who has familial ties to Abraham Lincoln.
She, one of nine siblings, is intent on keeping the family history alive.
Outreach Director Holly Snyder sees people of all backgrounds in the society’s library. Sometimes she helps adoptees research their ancestry, and other times volunteers assist people who need verification to join clubs like the Daughters of the American Revolution.
“Once you get started, it just hooks you right away. These days, it’s getting easier to become a researcher because there’s a lot of resources. And so it’s making it more accessible,” she said.
Ms. Avolio, who oversees technology, says older researchers used to write a lot of letters. Now, with more digitization, they are able to access information from their computers.
Members get free access to genealogy sites like Ancestry.com.
There are shelves of hard copies in the society’s library. Ms. Avolio says not everything is digital yet.
Usually, the society plans an annual trip to Salt Lake City to visit the Family History Library. The pandemic has halted those plans.
Ms. Fox is waiting until safer conditions to make a research trip to the East Coast to learn more about her paternal line.
Although some programming is yet to resume, the Genealogical Society is glad to meet in-person once again.
Last year, its open house was online with a remote student art show that featured entries from all over the country.
The student art show received the most submissions of any year yet. Elementary students answered the question, “Who helped you most or who did you miss most during the pandemic?”
Pictures included crayon drawings of cousins and parents. Some showed the sad realities of the pandemic, like a lack of time with some loved ones.
In the society’s library, members gathered around computer screens to try again to fill blanks on their family trees.
“There’s a thrill when you are researching, and when you see original documents with your ancestors handwriting,” Ms. Snyder said. “And so it just gets more exciting the more you find out.”
The Santa Barbara County Genealogical Society will be celebrating its 50th anniversary next year.