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Donna Hurts, with the African American Genealogical Society of Northern California, helps Berkeley Technological Academy student Nirivone Allen look through census material in the Family History Center at the Mormon Temple in Oakland, Calif. Thursday, May 12, 2011. The research is part of an effort by African American youth in Alameda County to learn about genealogical research and interview their relatives to discover who they are and where they come from.(Kristopher Skinner/Staff)

OAKLAND -- Alexis Henry spent the years from age 8 to 11 in foster care because of suspicions of abuse within her family. Those years, she said, were rough. She diverts her eyes downward and is expressionless when she talks about the time period.

She rejoined her family when she was 11; by 17, she had a daughter of her own. She gave birth to a son about four months ago. Like many urban youngsters, Henry, now 22, was not raised in a traditional nuclear family. She lived in foster care homes, moved between Berkeley, Oakland, Davis and Sacramento, and her parents didn't talk about their roots or their ancestors.

"Family business is family business," the Union City woman said she heard her relatives say. "And at first, I didn't care about my ancestors."

When Henry went looking for help with Alameda County Beyond Emancipation, an Oakland-based nonprofit group that assists former foster children who are now adults with housing, education, employment and social services, she got more than she expected: She learned how to trace her family history.

"It's very addicting," she said about using sites such as ancestry.com or familysearch.org to locate her ancestors. "I kept getting hint after hint (about my family) on the sites, and so I kept going."

Before long, she had located the names of her grandparents, and found that one grandfather had served during World War II. Since starting working on her family tree four months ago, Henry said she has traced her ancestry back six generations.

"The whole reason I am doing this is because of my kids, so they don't have to do it," she said of her children, Aamaya, 5, and Ray, 4 months.

The project was spearheaded by Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson after he did some digging into his family history.

"I kept on hearing elders in the community say that the younger generations seem disconnected from a sense of family history, that knowledge of your roots and your heritage," he said. "A few years ago, I had the chance to look into my family history, and it gave me a deeper appreciation for what my parents and grandparents went through in their journey out of the South."

With the help of the Mormon Temple Family History Center in Oakland and the African American Genealogical Society of Northern California, the Family Journeys Ancestry Project was launched in February. Teens, and even some elementary school students, searched websites, census and Social Security records, and travel and military documents to find clues about their ancestors.

Because youths today are adept at using Google to find information and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to share that information, the project was not looked down on as "old school,'' said Nicka Smith, a 32-year-old volunteer with the African American Genealogical Society of Northern America.

"You have to meet them at the level they are on,'' said Smith, who has traced her family history back to 1810 and has a family tree that includes about 2,100 people.

She worked with Henry and Delexes Woods, a 23-year-old Berkeley man who was raised by a single foster mother.

"They had more challenges because they were in the foster system," Smith said. "We had to have some hard conversations about what family is. We kept assuring them that even if they find out one thing, that is more than some people find in their entire lives."

They hit some challenges along the way, Smith said. For example, some pedigree charts list a place for "husband" and a place for "wife," Smith said.

Those titles, she said, were foreign to some in the program because their parents were not married or their father was not around, or they were raised by grandparents.

"It can get discouraging when I can't find anything, but I don't let that stop me from trying," said Woods, who is finishing his project along with about 10 former foster children from Beyond Emancipation, and 35 others from McClymonds High School in West Oakland, Berkeley Technology Academy and Hoover Elementary School in Oakland.

"The project has been especially meaningful for (former foster) youth because a number of them have lost touch with parents or other family members and are working to reconnect with them through this project,'' said Hannah Greene, Carson's communication coordinator. "The youth now have a different understanding of where they come from. Their perspective has been widened and communication between the youth and their family members has become stronger."

Carson said a number of youths have found ancestors as far back as five, six and seven generations. Finding out about family can lead to better self-esteem: Perhaps someone in the family owned a business, was a schoolteacher, fought in a foreign war, or was a leader in the community, Carson said.

The youths used census records and were given a family history chart and directed to ask their parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles for help completing it. They collected photographs, birth certificates and obituaries, then documented the project by creating a scrapbook or PowerPoint presentation. Youngsters were also given Flip video cameras to record their interviews with family members.

Charles Eddy, director of programs at Beyond Emancipation, said the ancestry project gave young people a chance to connect with people further removed from their immediate family.

"It begins to connect and reconnect families going back generations," he said, adding that the former foster children were selected to participate in the ancestry project. "We're confident that they could handle the emotional material that came up."

The research helped them identify family members they'd lost touch with or never knew existed, Eddy said. "It gives them permanency and enduring, long-lasting relationships, which are so important to children in the child welfare system. They've known lots of people who have passed through their lives temporarily, but have often lost the ability to connect with family."

Family Journeys
Ancestry Project
Who: Youths from Berkeley Technology Academy in South Berkeley, McClymonds High School in West Oakland, Alameda County's Beyond Emancipation program for former foster care youths and students at Hoover Elementary School in West Oakland
What: Family Journeys: Alameda County Youth Testimonials, a youth-led panel discussion and multimedia project showcasing the family history research they have done since February
Where: Malcolm X Elementary School, 1731 Prince St. in Berkeley
When: 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday