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Tracing Your Roots

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Jim Levulis
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WAMC
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Credit Jim Levulis / WAMC
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WAMC
Twin sisters Bernadette Scapin on left and Debra Brower

In a forward-looking modern age, some people in the Western Massachusetts are able to look back at the past, thanks to a genealogy workshop.

Genealogist Alan Horbal is hosting a four-week workshop at the Berkshire Athenaeum, instructing those seeking to know more about their ancestry on just how to find out where they came from.

“We want to know who we are and that’s the truth,” Horbal said. “It’s the largest growing hobby in the world.”

This reporter went to a class this week. Going into it, I didn’t know much about my own genealogy. Horbal told me that using websites like ancestry.com, familysearch.org and ellisisland.org, people can view U.S. census records to find detailed information on their relatives.

“More people have gotten involved in ancestry research because of the computer and the ease of getting on these programs,” said Horbal.

Horbal volunteered at the National Archives in Pittsfield for 12 years and has been researching his own ancestry for more than 40. He says by viewing the census records, people can see where relatives lived, what jobs they had, what level of education they had completed, and even who their neighbors were. During the course, I chatted with a pair of twins from Pittsfield. Sisters Bernadette Scapin and Debra Brower are two of the 80-some people who have taken Horbal’s class in Pittsfield over the past few years. Brower has put together a family tree that includes more than 290 relatives, but Scapin says the sisters decided they needed some more help.

“The problem we were running into on my mother’s side, because there were so many variations of my grandmother’s name and a lot of the records coming in through Ellis Island were listed under the male names,” said Scapin.

Horbal says misspellings and inaccurate records are common, but one can narrow a search by limiting it to a specific geographic area and even searching by first name since last names were so often botched. Scapin says remembering the past is a new idea in her family.

“When they came over it was almost like they didn’t want to discuss anything that happened in the old country,” Scapin said. “Now people are really interested in it and they want to go back as far as they can.”

For the twin sisters, sifting through the past is creating a more enjoyable present.

“We thought about doing it, but until we both retired we didn’t have the time to do it, because this really does take a lot of time,” said Scapin.

“I think we’re getting closer because we’re working together, so that’s a nice thing,” Brower said. “We’re laughing more together and finding out things about our family. It’s a good thing.”

The workshops are offered every Tuesday and are free to the public. He offers the same workshop in Chicopee on Thursdays.

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