Family Reunions: A Summer Tradition

Sweet rolling fields of hay surrounded our 2014 family reunion in central PA

Sweet rolling fields of hay surrounded our 2014 family reunion in central PA

By Karen Hendricks

Every year, the last Sunday of June, we head to the mountains surrounding Penn State’s Happy Valley area for my husband’s annual family reunion. It’s a tradition that has been upheld for as long as I’ve known my husband—I attended my first reunion before we were married, probably 25 years ago! Now our kids have grown up with this tradition—a great way to reconnect with family members and keep family ties intact.

My mother-in-law, one of 13 children, absolutely lives for family reunion day. It’s consistently one of the highlights of our summer as well. My husband is one of 40+ cousins, and now our children are some of the “next generation” of cousins. What a great tradition!


Gathering and getting ready to enjoy a family potluck luncheon

It seems like once a reunion has been established and planned for so many years, it is like a well-oiled machine that keeps on rolling. Here are some tips from our reunions that might inspire you to create or redesign your family gatherings:

  • Try to keep a consistent date every year
  • Also keep the location consistent from year to year. Our reunion was held at a family farm for many years, but now we rent a fire hall adjacent to a park with pavilions, playgrounds, ball fields, etc.
  • Share in the planning process by asking various families to oversee different aspects of the reunion.
  • For example, one family can send out postcard or email reminders; maintain email or physical addresses for family members.
  • Designate someone to organize activities/games for children. Our reunion traditionally ends with a piñata full of candy for the kids. We have some creative relatives who design and create a piñata from a cardboard box every year!
  • Another family organizes a traditional activity for “kids” of all ages: guessing jars filled with candy. The person who makes the closest guess to the amount of candy, without going over, wins the jar. Last year, we snagged about 6 jars between the 5 of us, and despite the rumors, we did not have any “inside information!”
  • Ask every family to bring a covered dish. Somehow it all works out and there’s always plenty of fried chicken, a variety of salads and side dishes, and plenty of desserts including the traditional Pennsylvania whoopie pies.
  • Ask every family to bring their own place settings.
  • Have one family prepare and bring large coolers of water, iced tea, etc.
  • Pass a hat every year to collect donations from each family, to pay for the next year’s expenses—rental of the venue, kid’s activities, candy, drinks, etc.
  • Although it’s good to plan activities, it’s also good to allow free time where you can talk and catch up with relatives. Isn’t that the main purpose of a “reunion?” 🙂
Pinata fun!

Pinata fun!

Cousins divide up the candy stash that rained down upon them!

Cousins divide up the candy stash that rained down upon them!

Desserts, salads, fried chicken, barbeque... the buffet tables are filled with family treasures: great recipes!

Desserts, salads, fried chicken, barbeque… the buffet tables are filled with family treasures: great recipes!

Something as simple as throwing around a football makes for a fun family reunion activity.

Something as simple as throwing around a football makes for a fun family reunion activity.

Make sure to include plenty of time for talking, catching up, and taking pictures.

Make sure to include plenty of time for talking, catching up, and taking pictures.

Our family takes the "guessing jar" game very seriously!

Our family takes the “guessing jar” game very seriously!

Candy jars are fun prizes enjoyed by the "winners"--kids of all ages.

Candy jars are fun prizes enjoyed by the “winners”–kids of all ages.

Until next year...

Until next year…

Please add your tips and suggestions in the “Comments” section below… we look forward to sharing your ideas and ultimately, strengthening family bonds!

Summer 2014: Through the Lens

“Making Memories” – Isn’t that what summer is all about?

Here at Off the Merry-Go-Round, we’ve been busy making memories, enjoying summer, with our families. We’ve gathered some of our favorite summer snapshots to share with you. Click on any photo to open a slide show… Enjoy!

Atop the Big Apple

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By Karen Hendricks

New York City is one of my favorite places on earth. I’ve been very blessed to have the opportunity to visit numerous times over the years, and we even enjoyed a family vacation there several years ago. Last week, as a small business owner, I was very thankful to receive a scholarship to attend a conference–which doesn’t sound all that exciting–but actually it was very enriching and energizing. I was in desperate need of a change of pace, due to this long, frigid winter. Thanks to my husband’s support at home, I enjoyed four days in the Big Apple, where it’s always fun to make new memories and discoveries.

One of those discoveries was The High Line, a former elevated train line that’s been converted into a pathway and park. It stretches for about a mile, running north/south, on the lower west side of Manhattan. It’s urban renewal at its best! Right in the heart of New York, it provided time “off the merry-go-round.” And I can’t wait to share it with you–our Off the Merry-Go-Round readers–and the rest of my family on a future trip.

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Entrance to The High Line

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Now, I should disclose that I absolutely LOVE walking in New York. I almost always travel there by train, as a car is really is hindrance–I don’t like to drive in the city especially during busy weekdays, and parking fees are astronomical during weekdays as well. If it’s raining more than a drizzle, I might hail a cab. But otherwise, I choose a hotel that’s central to the locations I’m planning to visit, and then I walk everywhere I need to go. Comfy shoes are a must.

The High Line aligned perfectly with my walking route, to and from my conference. So up I went every day, taking several flights of stairs to access The High Line, which gave me a fun, new perspective on the city. Looking out across rooftops, walking alongside towering buildings–both modern and old–with a bird’s eye view of city streets… it was incredible. Even though it was winter, and the path was lined with snow on either side, it was still beautiful. The park-like setting featured gorgeous trees and intriguing sculptures, with plenty of benches where you could relax and soak in the view. There were plenty of visitors during my walks to keep me company–it was a popular, happening place!

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I’m anxious to return on a warm summer day, when trail-side gardens are in full bloom, for a visit with my family. I think kids would especially enjoy the awesome views and new perspective above the city streets. And one huge benefit to walking on The High Line–especially for families with young children? You can actually walk continuously for a mile, without stopping at crosswalks and traffic lights, as you normally do in the city. However, you should make frequent stops on The High Line, simply to admire the views… there are many just waiting to be discovered.

Enjoy a few bonus pics below… And tell us: What family-friendly and/or budget-friendly destinations have you discovered in New York? Please share your tips and ideas below! 🙂

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I spy… the Empire State Building

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View of the Hudson River

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A light mist put a touch of gloss on the city streets below

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A snowy, snarled street… with a peek at the Hudson

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A little boy’s dream… bird’s eye view of a construction site

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The former rail lines gleam within the walkways…

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The High Line’s route

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I was intrigued by the design, shape and shine of this building!

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A former warehouse reminds visitors of a past life in the city…

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Looking down 22nd Street…

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Sculpture provides energizing color and shape against a building’s structured backdrop…

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One last intriguing skyline view…

If you enjoyed this article… you might also like:

Up for Family Adventure? Try Biking on a Rail Trail

And click here for The High Line’s website

Summer Memories

By Karen Hendricks

Ok, I know it’s officially fall on the calendar now. However, I feel as though fall was forced upon us this year. Candy corn started appearing in the grocery store in mid-August, before the summer’s salt water taffy supply had run out. Even Mother Nature was rushing into fall–most of August was unseasonably cool here in the mid-Atlantic. September (which IS still summer, through the 21st) has been a bit chilly. I feel cheated.

So, in an attempt to bring back some summertime warmth, I’ve put together a collection of favorite photos from our family beach vacation in Bethany Beach, Delaware. I snapped all of the photos below during an early-morning adventure. That morning, we all woke up (some of us easier than others) around 4:45, packed up a basket of goodies, and enjoyed breakfast on the beach as we watched the sun rise over the ocean. It’s one of my most treasured memories of the entire week and I’m glad we made the effort to roll everyone out of bed.

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5:18 am – The sky is brightening… Some of us are still sipping warm tea and relaxing on the picnic blanket, while some of us are exploring the beach

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I was intrigued by this children’s flip-flop, which someone had kindly stuck atop the beach fence, in hopes that the owner would easily spot it and reclaim it. There are indeed kind people in the world…

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5:25 am – Isn’t it incredible, that no two pictures of the ocean are the same? I love trying to capture the variety of rippling effects made by waves crashing on the beach

My husband always has an interesting relationship with the birds at any given beach... I'm not sure what that's all about...

My husband always has an interesting relationship with the birds at any given beach… I’m not sure what that’s all about…

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Fishermen try their luck in the pre-dawn hours…

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5:33 am – The warm glow of the sun is starting to break through the morning’s overcast skies…

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Don’t you love the birdie posing for a pic along the surf?

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5:38 am – My daughter captures the sparkle of sunshine we’re beginning to see across the ocean

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Gorgeous colors and the promise of a beautiful day at the beach

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5:40 am – I think this might be my favorite pic of the entire series

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Our three loves…

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The reflection of sunshine stretches across the sand… would that be called “sandshine?”

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5:45 am – Hurray! An hour into our adventure, we’ve successfully watched the sun rise over the Atlantic.

Although it’s something that happens every day, how often do we truly stop to watch the sun rise (or set)? This was our one day to see the entire process, to soak it all in, and tuck those memories away to warm us on cool fall and winter days. It was a simple, but beautiful way, to enjoy time “off the merry-go-round” as a family.

How do you keep vacation memories alive? What special moments stand out during your summer travels?

August Days (Daze)

By Karen Hendricks

hiking trail

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I feel summer slipping away… August always seems like a frenzied rush of activity–preparing for school days and yet desperately trying to  savor a few more sweet summer days, and stashing a few more precious memories away for safe-keeping. It’s a balancing act for sure!

Deep breath… It may be August, but it’s early August, and there’s still time to enjoy a getaway (or two)!

One of my favorite getaways is also one of the easiest to plan: Taking a family hike in a state park or forest. Even if the trail is only a short distance from your home, being in the woods is an adventure that takes you worlds away. Our family has picked up a few tips through the years, but feel free to comment and leave your own tips as well!

Hiking How-To:

  • Pick a destination with appeal. Choose a mountaintop, a waterfall, vista or other similar feature as a goal to reach. It makes the trip worthwhile on many levels!
  • Plan your route. Most parks have trail maps available on their websites, so you can “study” your route ahead of time, and tailor your total mileage to your family’s fitness or age-appropriate level. Or, seek the advice of a park ranger and ask for his/her recommendation for a trail your family can tackle.
  • Just like the Boy Scouts, be prepared. Bring a backpack stashed with a small first aid kit, bug spray, sunscreen, and snacks such as granola bars and/or apples. Either include water bottles in the backpack for everyone (although this could be heavy to start!) or bring a second soft cooler-type bag for the water.
  • Be observant. Encourage your children to keep their eyes open for natural wonders: types of trees, interesting spiders and other insects, animal tracks (or even animals!), flowers, etc. You literally never know what you’ll encounter around each curve in the trail.
  • Be healthy. Exercising is a great side benefit for everyone, and the fact that you’re exercising together as a family is even better! Wear a pedometer or track your distance using an app on your phone, for your total mileage.
  • Record a few memories. If you still have a hand free, bring a camera!

Most admission to state parks or recreation areas is free, so you’ll also be planning a daytrip that’s easy on the family budget… another worthwhile benefit.

Baltimore's Inner Harbor: The colorful building in the center is the Baltimore Aquarium--an amazing place my family has loved visiting!

Baltimore’s Inner Harbor: The colorful building in the center is the Baltimore Aquarium–an amazing place my family has loved visiting! Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Summer (Brain) Storms

Several weeks ago, I wrote a post about day trips, and how much our family enjoys heading to our nation’s capital for getaways. (Click here for Daytrip: Washington, D.C.) I opened the discussion up on Facebook and asked friends to share their favorite daytrip destinations. Wow, did they respond with some fabulous ideas! Check out the results of their brainstorming:

  • Inner Harbor, Baltimore (Thanks, Julie!) and another friend suggested dinner at Baltimore’s City Cafe, followed by a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concert (Thanks, Judy!)
  • “Lititz, PA is fun, especially Wilbur Chocolate Factory” (Thanks, Wendy!)
  • Strasburg Railroad, in Lancaster County (Thanks, Paulette!)
  • “I personally always loved going to the Catoctin Zoo (Thurmont, MD). Even after my oldest outgrew it and my youngest is on his way, I still love going. It is a wonderful, tranquil park-like environment with hands-on feeding opportunities. The saddest day was when “Griz” the grizzly bear passed away. I felt like I lost a good friend that day. Highly recommend!” (Check out local zoos and wildlife refuges in your area–Thanks, Jen!)
  • “For an indoor break when it’s rainy or just way too hot we go to the Summer Kids Free movies at the local theaters or use coupons for free bowling through” (Thanks, Melaney!)
  • “When it’s nice out we have been visiting different local parks and recreation areas using the “Roads To Freedom” program through the Adams County Library and the “Go Outdoors York” program through the York County Library. Their programs are like letterboxing where they give clues at a park to send you on a walk to find the pencil rubbing posts.” (Check your local libraries for similar summer programs and thanks to Melaney for this idea also!)
  • Another friend suggested area parks, especially ones with lakes for swimming and/or boat rentals. (Thanks, Christina!)
  • I will add one more… check out area sporting events. They will nurture your children’s love of the game, whether it’s baseball or soccer, or anything in between. Tickets to MLB games are often offered in family-friendly packages, or head to a minor league ballpark where tickets are even more affordable and include fun “extras” such as fireworks or t-shirts. Soccer games are also a lot of fun, whether at the MLS or USL level. Or take a drive to visit an NFL training camp. Or forget watching sports, and participate by enjoying a round of miniature golfing!

Take time to enjoy these fleeting summer days of August… and as always, feel free to share your ideas and thoughts. What are your traditions for these August days? Do you feel in a daze, wondering where summer went? Share your strategies for savoring every last drop of the summer, below. 🙂

For even more inspiration, check out some of our previous, related posts:

The Importance of Girlfriend Getaways

Vacation: Same Time, Same Place–Next Year!

Up for Family Adventure? Try Biking on a Rail Trail

Preparing Your Pet for A Lodging Experience

Amanda with checkin

Remain calm during check-in for a smooth transition.

By Jen Ashenfelter

In early June I posted tips for finding the best pet lodging facility for your dog or cat (click here). As you get ready for your vacation, make sure you prepare your pet for the resort experience. I’m the marketing coordinator for Doylestown Veterinary Hospital & Holiday House Pet Resort in Doylestown, PA, so I’m lucky to work for a terrific medical team and professional lodging staff who offered these helpful tips.

It’s an exciting day—you are ready for vacation and it’s time to drop your dog or cat off at the lodging resort. Even though you are looking forward to your trip, the moment you have to leave your pet in the care of others can be stressful.

Planning is essential in managing anxiety. Previously we looked at tips for choosing the best lodging facility for your pet. Now it’s time to consider a few final steps that will make the check-in process easy for you and the lodging experience fun for your pet.

  • Vaccinations – When you make the lodging reservation, ask the staff which vaccinations are necessary and suggested for your pet’s stay. Contact your veterinarian to make sure your dog or cat is up-to-date on vaccinations, and make an appointment if necessary.
  • Activities – Be sure to choose an activity package for your pet when you make the reservation. Staying active is important for health and happiness.
  • Medications – If your pet is on medication, be sure to provide enough medication to last the stay. Package and label according to the directions given by the staff.
  • Food – Many resorts will serve a veterinarian-approved food but will serve your pet’s regular diet if you provide the food. Be sure to measure, package and label plenty of food for the stay. It’s also a good idea to supply extra food, especially if your pet is involved in lots of activities.
  • Contact information – Provide an up-to-date list of contacts and emergency numbers as requested by the facility.
  • Remain calm – This is the most important tip for ensuring a smooth check-in to the lodging facility. Pets can sense when we are upset or stressed and will mirror our energy. The best thing you can do is remain calm and confident so your dog or cat will have a positive experience.
  • Going home – A smooth transition when returning home is also important. If the resort offers a grooming option before check-out, a nice bath and pampering is a great way to end the lodging experience. If you are lodging a puppy or young dog, then return to basic housebreaking to reinforce good behavior now that he is back home. It’s also recommended not to feed your pet a big meal after coming home. Pets who are kept busy and happy at lodging—much like a child at camp—will be sleepy, so provide small amounts of water and food for several hours until their energy returns.

    These brothers enjoyed time in the play yard during their resort vacation.

    These brothers enjoyed time in the play yard during their resort vacation.

Lodging is your pet’s vacation from the regular routine. Remember to research lodging resorts well-ahead of your vacation. Choose a resort which provides the best activities, level of safety, and personal care you expect for your pet. When you are organized and calm during the check-in process, you and your pet will less stressed and ready for a good time.

A Twist on Summer Reading

By Karen Hendricks

How hard (or easy) is it to encourage summer reading time for your kids? Even if your kids are voracious readers like mine, it’s good to change up the reading routine with a fresh approach. And if it’s a struggle to keep your kids reading through the summer, this idea might also help hook them on books. The idea? Audio books!

Listen Up

There’s no question that reading is one of the most valuable skills our children can acquire during their school years. But I’m going to go out on a limb and say that audio books are the best format for kids to latch onto during the summer. Here are a few reasons why:

  • The change in format makes reading more fun, less like “homework.”
  • The narrations are entertaining, and the art of listening / focusing is so important. Kids who can truly listen and comprehend a book will be able to better listen to adults, instructions, speeches, etc.
  • Listening to a book allows the narration, sound effects, music, etc. to paint a picture of the book’s events in your child’s mind. I think it’s a great way to spark the imagination! This would be as opposed to “seeing” the book come to life in movie format. Movies are never as good as the books. But I would argue that audio books are usually as good as the book—sometimes even better because it gives your child’s imagination a jump start.

Road Scholars

One of the best times to listen to an audio book is in the car while traveling. My family has listened to numerous audio books while traveling on vacation, or during regular road trips to summer camps, sports practices/games, etc. It’s made the miles fly by and I really enjoy the fact that we’re sharing the experience of listening to the same book. We often talk about our reactions to the plot—great discussions! This brings up another topic: Do you have family rules for traveling? Are the kids allowed to listen to iPods, MP3 players, etc? Or is there one “family” radio station / CD / etc. playing for everyone to listen to? Or do you watch DVDs while traveling? This might be a great topic for a future blog! Reminds me of Jen’s previous blog on screen rules.

Recommended Reading

Back to books… Sometimes the narrator or characters’ voices can “make or break” an audio book. If you don’t enjoy listening to a particular voice, give another audio book a try. Most of the ones we’ve tried have been very good. Here’s a list of suggested titles or series to try—all enjoyed by my family through the years:


  • The Magic Tree House series by Mary Pope Osbourne (Ages 8+) – A wonderful collection of books that combine a love of nature and history with learning, in an entertaining way. Fairly short audio books are perfect for shorter car rides or shorter attention spans.
  • The American Girl series by various authors (Ages 8+) – This series instills an appreciation for history in young girls and is beautifully done. My husband and son deserve special pats on the back for listening to many of these books during vacation treks!

Charlotte's Web

  • Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White (Ages 8+) – A classic that “children” of all ages enjoy. Even if you have a range of ages in your family, hopefully the older children will enjoy revisiting this childhood favorite.
  • The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling (Ages 9+) – These audio books will transport you straight to Hogwarts! Even if your children have read the books, it’s fun to experience the audio versions, and again, I think there’s appeal to children of all ages. I have to say, I truly enjoyed listening to the series!
  • ShilohThe Shiloh trilogy: Shiloh, Shiloh Season and Saving Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor (Ages 8+) – From Amazon: When Marty Preston comes across a young beagle in the hills behind his home, it’s love at first sight — and also big trouble. It turns out the dog, which Marty names Shiloh, belongs to Judd Travers, who drinks too much and has a gun — and abuses his dogs. So when Shiloh runs away from Judd to Marty, Marty just has to hide him and protect him from Judd. But Marty’s secret becomes too big for him to keep to himself, and it exposes his entire family to Judd’s anger. How far will Marty have to go to make Shiloh his? Great family discussions can come from this series.
  • Holes
  • Holes by Louis Sachar (Ages 8+) – From Amazon: This winner of the Newbery Medal and the National Book Award features Stanley Yelnats, a kid who is under a curse. A curse that began with his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather and has since followed generations of Yelnats. Now Stanley has been unjustly sent to a boys’ detention center, Camp Green Lake, where the warden makes the boys “build character” by spending all day, every day, digging holes five feet wide and five feet deep. It doesn’t take long for Stanley to realize there’s more than character improvement going on at Camp Green Lake: the warden is looking for something. Stanley tries to dig up the truth in this inventive and darkly humorous tale of crime and punishment—and redemption.
  • The Giver by Lois Lowry (Ages 8+) –’s review: In a world with no poverty, no crime, no sickness and no unemployment, and where every family is happy, 12-year-old Jonas is chosen to be the community’s Receiver of Memories. Under the tutelage of the Elders and an old man known as the Giver, he discovers the disturbing truth about his utopian world and struggles against the weight of its hypocrisy. With echoes of Brave New World, in this 1994 Newbery Medal winner, (Lois) Lowry examines the idea that people might freely choose to give up their humanity in order to create a more stable society. Gradually Jonas learns just how costly this ordered and pain-free society can be, and boldly decides he cannot pay the price. This book, I have to admit, freaked me out a bit, but ultimately, led to some great family chats.

If you enjoy audio books, let us know which ones you and/or your children recommend! Happy reading (or listening)!