In the San Antonio Texas West Stake, youth have experienced the truth of the scriptural promise that, as they serve others, they will discover and strengthen themselves (see Matthew 16:25). Service to their community and to their ancestors through active family history events has connected them as a ward, extended their influence into their larger communities, and increased the depth of individual testimonies. And, not unimportantly, their projects are fun.
On a breezy spring day, the youth of the Helotes Ward chose to spend time in a cemetery rather than involved in other more typical teenage pursuits. Aubrey Freckleton, Laurel class president, organized a BillionGraves cemetery documentation project—an active, outdoor, smartphone-based activity that quickly and easily digitizes headstones.
It’s family history, and it’s a natural fit for youth.
“BillionGraves is a perfect leadership opportunity for youth,” said Lance Bradford, bishop of the Helotes Ward. “We wanted a project that the youth themselves could pick up and run with. It was really satisfying to see the adults being led by the youth on this.”
Cemetery documentation is a vital part of the family history puzzle. It allows people searching for the final location of their ancestors to see precisely where they are buried, without having to travel, and preserves the information as an additional source. It also digitizes the information on the headstone itself, links online the information for relatives buried near one another, and provides exact GPS coordinates and images to posterity.
“As I participated in this project, I not only began to feel my Heavenly Father’s love for me, but the love of those I was serving,” said Aubrey. “Because of this project, I was able to find the site where my great-great-grandfather is buried. Even though I never knew this man, I had the distinct impression that I had found a soul that had long been awaiting my arrival.”
“There’s been more of a family history focus in our ward than ever before, and it can be tied back to the BillionGraves activity,” said Bishop Bradford. “It really engaged the youth in particular, and more broadly the whole ward, and it raised to the surface of our consciousness the importance of family history.”
Youth and other members of the Helotes Ward are feeling the spirit of Elijah—what Elder Russell M. Nelson called “a manifestation of the Holy Ghost bearing witness of the divine nature of the family. Hence, people throughout the world, regardless of religious affiliation, are gathering records of deceased relatives at an ever-increasing rate” (“A New Harvest Time,” Ensign, May 1998, 34).
“I cannot imagine a better way to draw closer to God than through searching out those willing yet ‘lost’ souls,” said Aubrey. “I want to help others live with their families forever.”
To that end, the Helotes Ward now staffs a booth at the city’s monthly Market Day, a cheerful event full of arts, crafts, live music—and family history.“We’ve set up computers and a WiFi hotspot, and we help people find their ancestors online. It’s very nondenominational; people of all faiths are interested in their history. Those who think they’re not interested at first become fascinated and engaged. They want to know how they can learn about and do more family history,” said Bishop Bradford.
The booth is staffed by ward mission leaders, family history consultants, and youth.
“The BillionGraves project opened my eyes to the fact that family history work is easy! This sort of service is no longer focused toward older people, but is perfect for the youth,” said Aubrey. “Instead of idling away time on meaningless social media sites, we have the opportunity to make a huge difference for the living and the dead—and in our own lives too. I’m so grateful to have been a part of this project.”
To host your own cemetery documentation event or learn more about BillionGraves, visit the FamilySearch/BillionGraves landing page.