Lori Kirkland and her husband George were nonplussed last year when they received a notice from something called Jackson County Family Week. It said that the Kirkland family was one of the nominees for family of the year.
Until that moment, the Grain Valley family of six had never heard of the organization.
“We’d gotten the letter in the mail and weren’t sure if it was real,” said Lori.
But real it is. This year, Jackson County Family week celebrates its 16th anniversary doing the thing it always does —getting families to spend more time together. Organizer Diane Mack figures it is the longest-lived family event of its kind in the country.
The week of activities, which runs April 20-26, was kicked off at the annual dinner Tuesday citing families for their dedication to each other and the community. Last year, the Kirklands were honored for their efforts to jump in and help out neighbors who needed a hand.
Also, Company of Champions, an offshoot group for people with disabled family members, will join the celebration with a bingo night April 23.
Jackson County Family Week started at a PTA committee meeting in 1998. The committee, at Cordill-Mason Elementary School in Blue Springs, wanted to do something to strengthen family togetherness, Mack said. So members came up with a plan that involved local businesses.
Each family that participated would keep track of time spent doing something together outside of the usual after-school sports and activities. They could then drop off those slips of paper at participating businesses to be drawn later for prizes.
That first year was so successful — 650 participants out of a school of 700 students — that organizers branched out the next year to include the whole city of Blue Springs, Mack said.
As the years went by, organizers noticed a lot of nominees from outside Blue Springs. By 2004, the group gained non-profit status and reached out to all of Jackson County, she said.
The Company of Champions is a more recent development. As Mack read the nominations each year, she found many were for families dealing with the challenges of disabilities. These families were often prevented from finding each other because of medical privacy rules, so Mack decided to set up a way for them to meet.
The issue is close to Mack’s heart, because her 37-year-old daughter, Kelsey, lives with conditions brought about by treatment from being born prematurely.
“I’ve been a lifelong organizer of support groups,” Mack said.
Company of Champions started with a bingo night six years ago that attracted 50 people. Now the bingo nights, held once a quarter, regularly draw about 600 from all over the area to Blue Springs High School, where they are held.
The emphasis on family is important, Mack said, because families have had less and less time with each other over the years. She cited research showing the average family spends only 13 minutes per week in activities with each other.
Rewarding that time with prizes has proved to be good incentive. Prizes and activities vary from year to year, according to which businesses participate, Mack said. But typically, there will be discounts on small things, a health fair at St. Mary’s Medical Center and a swim pass package at CoCo Key Water Resort.
The highlight, though, is when nomination essays are read at the dinner, she said. Anyone may submit a 100-200 word nomination essay. Participants are told to avoid resume-style lists of activities and concentrate on how the nominees interact with each other and the community, she said.
“It is so inspiring to read what these families do,” she said. “It’s the most inspiring night of my life.”
Usually the group gets 20 to 40 nominations. This year, 29 families were nominated. The essays are read during the banquet by Dick Wilson of KCMO and all nominees then vote on the family of the year.
The Kirklands won last year because of their kindness to neighbors.
“It felt weird being commended for something we don’t think twice about,” Lori Kirkland said.
She said the honor has made her more aware of needs of others. “We’ve become more involved as far as neighbors and friends’ needs,” she said.
“I think the world needs something like this.”