Genealogical Inspirations: That Very First Kind Look-Up Volunteer

This is part of my “Genealogical Inspirations” series highlighting some of my key milestones, to commemorate the release on Monday of the 1940 US Census.

In 2002, I was able to beat down a big brick wall that I’d faced the first year I started researching my own family history — trying to find any clues about my Grandpa Flanagan, who was orphaned as a toddler. And it was thanks to the index of the newly released 1930 US Census, which allowed me to locate my grandfather and his four brothers living in the German Roman Catholic Orphan Home in Buffalo, New York.  But, I was frustrated to learn that the orphanage no longer existed.

When I started posting inquiries on various Ancestry and RootsWeb listservs, everyone replied back telling me not to hold out hope searching for the families of orphans from the pre-World War II period. They said older orphan records were rarely preserved.

But I did hope. So, I contacted the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, who promptly informed me they no longer held the records for that orphanage, that the records had been transferred to Catholic Charities of Buffalo. My next call was to Catholic Charities. I didn’t keep a record of the date of that first call, but I was transferred to a very nice lady who confirmed they did have the orphanage records. She took down the dates and names I had discovered in the census, and told me that they would look through their records, when someone there had the time. She too told me not to get my hopes up, that not all records from the orphanage were intact. She said that they’d mail me copies if they found anything. And when I asked if I could send payment for a look-up fee and photocopies, she told me that wasn’t necessary.

So, I waited. And I tried not to get my hopes up.

But, I kept checking my mailbox.

Then, finally, months later, during a routine look in the mailbox, there it was. A big manila envelope, stuffed about a 1/4 inch thick, from Catholic Charities of Buffalo. I ran into my house, ripped it open, and spent the entire evening pouring over the documents. Lisa Barkley (I knew her name now!), had sent me a big stack of records on all five boys, for the short time they resided at the orphanage.

My letter from Catholic Charities. Click the image to view a bigger copy.

From this stack of orphan records, I was able to finally learn the names of my Grandpa Flanagan’s parents, as well as their dates and causes of death. It opened up a whole new world of hope for me.

I really have no idea if Lisa Barkley was, or still is, an employee, or “just” a volunteer.  But, I am forever grateful for her kind heart and willingness to help.  And I specifically refer to “look-up volunteers” in my blog post title because this incident introduced me to the world (literally, all around the world) of genealogy volunteers who simply want to help. They are willing to spend time (and often money) helping other family historians — searching proprietary databases, visiting physical archives or localities, pursuing leads, taking photos, making and mailing/emailing photocopies — all for never more than maybe the cost of postage or copies. Why? Because they’ve been there. Because they know that they too will someday, yet once again, need the help of another genealogist.

Nearly ten years later, I never cease to tout to others just how reciprocal and helpful the genealogy community is, and I try to serve as a free “look-up volunteer” any opportunity I can.

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0 thoughts on “Genealogical Inspirations: That Very First Kind Look-Up Volunteer”

  1. Colleen, I can just feel your excitement at receiving this packet as I read your description of it. I imagine that is fueling your anticipation of yet another census release date! Too bad we have that long ten-year wait in between releases. I’m so glad so many other archival records are coming online in the meantime. And, yes, those kind volunteers are such a blessing amidst those information gaps!

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