President Oaks’ great-granddaughter experiences transforming power of family history

Margaretta Unwin Clark’s life story is riddled with courage and faith in overcoming trials. After joining the Church in England, Margaretta traveled across the ocean in 1856 and then across the American plains with the Martin Handcart Company.

As Kaitlyn Ward learned about Margaretta, her fifth-great-grandmother, she felt an instant kinship. “I found out she struggled with terrible seasickness, and I have a hard time traveling. I have terrible travel anxiety. I can’t drive a car and I can’t do boats and I have a really hard time on airplanes,” the 15-year-old told the Church News.

But discovering that Margaretta lashed herself to the front of the ship to help overcome her seasickness gave Kaitlyn courage. “If she had the courage to do that then I figure I have the courage to step onto a plane or step onto a boat or drive a car.”

She considers Margaretta not only an important role model but also a guardian angel. “That is very comforting to me.”

For Kaitlyn, family history and the stories of her ancestors have proved to be more than a hobby. It’s become a passion that she pursues every chance she gets, to the point that her mom, Amy Ward, recently blocked from the computer to ensure Kaitlyn completes her schoolwork.

Kaitlyn’s many successes in temple and family history work led her to be asked to be a VIP youth ambassador at RootsTech 2018 and to be incorporated into the keynote for Family Discovery Day on March 3. In a “happy accident” or perhaps even a small “miracle,” the headliners were President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, and his wife, Sister Kristen M. Oaks — Kaitlyn’s great-grandparents.

When President and Sister Oaks were asked to include a youth ambassador in their presentation, they readily agreed. When they were told the name of the ambassador was Kaitlyn Ward from Poway, California, President Oaks immediately called Kaitlyn’s mother to confirm it was “their” Kaitlyn Ward from Poway.

Fortunately, President and Sister Oaks share their great-granddaughter’s love for discovering family stories. Much of Sister Oaks’ early religious training, for example, came from a man she has never met in this life.

Growing up, Sister Oaks spent hours in the basement of her home poring over the journals and piles of family photos of her mother’s father — Joseph Stras Peery, who died a year before she was born.

“His thoughts, his faith, his stories of our family — their heartbreaks and victories, their persistence, and their love of our Savior — inspired me,” Sister Oaks said in her address at Family Discovery Day.

President Oaks shares his wife’s life-long interest in discovering the stories of ancestors. Through the years he has written the history of his father, Dr. Lloyd E. Oaks, and his mother, Stella Harris Oaks, as well as the history of his late wife, June, and various pioneer ancestors who crossed the plains.

Individuals become connected to their ancestors through knowledge of their lives, President Oaks said in his remarks. “We bond with them as we understand the circumstances and personal values that shaped them. They are real people to whom we owe our existence in this world and whom we will meet again in the hereafter. We learn better who we are, where we come from, and are blessed with a clearer vision of where we are going.”

Those who search out their ancestors’ actions and words will receive strength and direction in their own lives, President Oaks promised.

As parents and leaders guide youth to connect their “technological expertise” to discovering ancestors on FamilySearch, “a powerful spiritual journey begins,” Sister Oaks added. “They connect with real ancestors of great consequence to them, who may have waited years to have their saving ordinances performed. It is an explosive combination. Our logging on to FamilySearch is far more rewarding than logging on to Facebook.”

Kaitlyn’s “spiritual journey” with family history, as Sister Oaks suggested, began with a patient Young Women leader. Kaitlyn said she used to fall prey to the two myths of family history: First, that family history is only for old people. Second, that all the work has already been done.

But when she sat down with her Young Women leader, Melanie Burk, for a one-on-one tutorial, she surprised herself by having fun.

As they searched through Kaitlyn’s family tree, “We giggled over some of the names of people and places,” she recalled. During that session, she found the name of one of her ancestors — Martha Ward — whose temple work had not been completed. She subsequently performed Martha’s baptismal ordinance in the temple.

That experience not only taught the teenager how important family history is but how “simple and easy it can be and how much fun you can have doing it. So I’ve been doing family history pretty much ever since.”

The 15-year-old has not only taught her parents how to search out family names but also her younger sister, 12-year-old Samantha, and even her 4-year-old brother, Jack. “Any time that I’m babysitting [Jack], we’ll go and play what we call the ‘green temple game,’ which is where we sit in front of the computer and start scrolling through the descendancy view of names. If he sees a green temple, he’ll get really excited and shout and point. And sometimes we’ll reward him with a little jellybean.”

The Mia Maid’s passion has even sparked interest among other youth in the Del Norte Ward in Poway, California, although she is the first to admit that she’s had to drag some of her friends along in the process. “Not all of them were as excited and passionate about family history as I am or as my little sister is,” Kaitlyn said. “But I would sit them down with a computer and be like, ‘Hey, look at what we’re going to do today. This is fun and awesome and we’re going to make a game out of it.’ “

Recently, their ward completed a family history competition that resulted in the youth performing the baptisms for about 500 family names.

During Family Discovery Day, Sister Oaks called FamilySearch “a sacred portal connected to heaven,” and testified that youth working in family history feel a transforming power. “Family history has eternal significance in the life of each person you serve, but it can also have very immediate blessings in the life of the person performing the work.”

President Oaks said youth participating in family history “experience almost instantaneous joy and increased confidence. They become more connected to their families. They no longer feel so alone. They begin to feel a celestial kinship. They learn what it means to feel the Spirit.

“Family history offers a healing influence and an assurance that each person is precious in the eyes of our Heavenly Father.”

For Kaitlyn, one of the big blessings she has experienced is the ability to better recognize the Spirit. “I suffer from anxiety and sometimes its tough for me to feel the Spirit when I’m having an anxious moment.”

It can be hard, she said, when she’s feeling anxious to interact with other people. “When I started family history I realized my anxiety was actually getting better and I was able to feel the Spirit more and I was able to listen to spiritual promptings more.”

Also in her Family Discovery Day address, Sister Oaks read a letter from Kaitlyn’s Young Women leader, Melanie Burk, who reported that she has seen Kaitlyn become “a real leader with great outreach. I watched her serve others endlessly and as she did, she developed more self-confidence and a happy, glowing countenance. Focused on serving, Kaitlyn began to recognize and feel the blessings of the Spirit which blessed her life daily.”

The Young Women leader said she now sees Kaitlyn often attending the temple to do baptisms carrying a half-inch thick stack of temple family file names.

As President and Sister Oaks invited Kaitlyn to join them on stage during their address, Kaitlyn stood confidently in front of thousands of RootsTech attendees and smiled as President and Sister Oaks each put an arm around her. “We’re so proud of her,” Sister Oaks said.

“Doing family history has given me courage and strength and the strongest testimony that I’ve ever had,” Kaitlyn declared to the crowd.