'We love family history' youth shout at 'KINnect' event in St. George, Utah


Several thousand cheering teenagers nearly filling a university arena is not an image some might associate with family history. But family history is what drew close to 4,000 high school students to KINnect YOU, an event on the Dixie State University campus March 25.

The event’s website describes KINnect YOU as “a movement of youth who are determined to make a difference in the world,” one that is “for youth, put on by youth, utilizing a team of dynamic leaders, community partners, national donors, and most importantly youth representatives from all the local high schools.”

Dennis Leavitt, a local Church leader in the St. George area, said, “The concept was to put on a family history event that really is youth style.”

He added, “The Brethren have made such wonderful promises to the youth and such remarkable declarations of how important it is that the youth get engaged in temple and family history work.”

A prior family history event in St. George had been less than satisfying in attracting interest from youth, he said. “So we determined to put on what seems like, in St. George at least, the first-ever family history event for youth, by youth and totally youth style.”

Part of the method was to recruit a planning committee of youth — what Brother Leavitt styled as “the Great Eight” — to help ensure the event had sufficient appeal to attract 14-18 year-olds from throughout Utah’s Washington County area and its eight high schools, extending into Mesquite, Nevada, and Enterprise, Utah.

“So I go to this meeting, and they had the whole thing sketched out,” said Brenda Christensen of the Foremaster Ridge Ward and a student at Hurricane High School. “They told us they wanted us to come in and change things, make it something that youth would like, so that it would be youth-friendly.”

One of the first things, she said, was to come up with a unique name. “No one’s done anything like this before. Are we going to call it a family history expo? Because you’re falling asleep when you’re hearing that.”

The slogan chosen was “Connect the world — one story at a time.”

The event would have a decidedly technological focus with plenty of activity.

“We wanted the youth on their feet a lot of the time,” Brenda said, “and using their smartphones rather than being distracted by them.”

Another Great Eight member, Dallen Gilliespie of the Panorama Ward in St. George and a student at Pineview High School, had been involved in family history events before, but recognized the challenge of making the subject appealing to his peers.

“It helps that we were able to tell them there would be free stuff, and a James the Mormon concert. And free lunch from Chik-fil-A — a lot of my buddies liked the idea of that.

“We just tried to keep them interested about it, because when you keep on throwing it out in conversation, then they remember it more, and they’re more prone to want to sign up.”

Morgan Penrod of the Hurricane Stake was a member of “the Nifty Nine” — another nickname applied by Brother Leavitt — all but one of them a group of high school student officers chosen for their ability to engage with their youthful peers and get them excited. They assisted Sam Payne, a musician and radio personality, in emceeing the event.

Morgan said involvement in KINnect YOU has sparked her interest in family history, an interest she expects will grow. “It’s a gradual process,” she said. “You definitely have to pray about it to get pumped up about it. Sometimes my grandma sends us emails about important dates in our family history and about our ancestors. I feel like knowing about them makes me pumped up about it more.”

Aubree Esplin, a planning committee member from Desert Hills High School, said that at the first meeting, she was doubtful the venture would work, because no one was sure of what to do. “But Dennis had such drive, and it has been the coolest experience for me to watch it grow from that to this in just the span of a couple of months.”

Word spread, Aubree said, through social media, and posters. “A lot of it was that Bruce and his wife went to all the stake high councils and bishops, and it was just kind of a telephone game, a domino effect. People got the word out, and it has been incredible to see the results.”

Beginning at 7 a.m. when the doors to the university’s Burns Arena opened, a full agenda was packed into eight hours:

• A combined choir from the eight high schools performed at selected times throughout the day, including songs from the popular Especially for Youth conferences and a theme song composed expressly for KINnect YOU.

• Motivational speakers Hank Smith and John Hilton III, both of them religion professors at Brigham Young University, each added an engaging flair as they spoke on the doctrines pertaining to temple and family history.

• In one of three breakout sessions, a smartphone-based treasure or scavenger hunt was conducted with youth texting on their devices to participate in virtual tours of sites of historic interest in and around St. George. In the first part of it, as directed by the software designed by filmmaker Malcolm Judd, one could hear and see individual groups of event-goers taking selfies of themselves jumping up and down and shouting “We love family history!”

• In another breakout session, participants assembled at the Church’s Institute building adjacent to the campus, where they attended their choice of workshop classes on family history taught by their peers.

• In a third breakout session, youth assembled at specified locations on the campus together with other members of their stake or, in the case of attendees who were of other faiths, with members of their congregations. In the stake meetings, the concept of “find, take and teach” was discussed, as it relates to finding ancestors, taking their names to the temple and teaching others how to do it.

• Popular rap artist James the Mormon presented a noon-time, open-air concert as event-goers enjoyed free lunches provided by the local Chik-fil-A and shakes provided by the Iceberg Drive-in. Also, the 1950s-60s oriented group the Hubcaps performed as the youth were going to and from the Burns Arena and other locales.

• Youth attending the event set a world record. It stemmed from a Mutual night event the youth in the individual wards had engaged in during the month prior to KINnect YOU. Called the “box challenge,” it involved the youth in sitting down with their parents and selecting family photos that could be uploaded to the “Memories” section of the Church website. Then, sitting in the Burns Arena, they used their smartphones to tag individuals in the photos and upload the tags to FamilySearch. Progress was tracked on a large screen. The goal of 17,000 uploaded memories was exceeded and, with a split-second to spare, the goal of 12,000 tagged memories was reached, all within the specified time period, bringing the raucous applause from the crowd one might hear after a victory in a double-overtime basketball game.

• A prior contest was held wherein youth made short videos about their family history. At KINnect You, scholarships to Dixie State were awarded to six winners in the video contest.

• The day’s events were capped by an address from Elder Steven E. Snow, General Authority Seventy and the Church’s Historian and Recorder. (Please see the accompanying report on Elder Snow’s address.)

A theme song composed expressly for KINnect You “One of a Million Stars,” was performed by Brother Payne, backed by the combined choir from the high schools. Its words capture the essence of what organizers call a movement. They say, in part:

You left a story. It’s going to light my way like the sand around the shore. I’m going to find you like it’s the dark of night, and every story is one of a million stars.

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