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At the end of each summer, Michele Guay Sullivan, 63, packs her car and drives the eight hours from her home in Virginia to Ocracoke Island, a small, undeveloped island in the Outer Banks, North Carolina. There, she will meet up with 30 members of her family, from her nieces to grandchildren, for one to two weeks of fun in the sun.
This is her annual family vacation, which her family has attended for almost 50 years.
The first time Sullivan went to the island, she was 14 and tagged along with her older sister and brother-in-law, who were going on a fishing trip, as a babysitter for her niece. (Her now-adult niece brings her own teenage children to Okracoke now.) Since then, Sullivan and her family go to the island every August.
With about 13 miles of unspoiled beach and a quaint village at the end of the isle, Ocracoke Island remains pristine. The charming spot is accessible only by boat or plane, so the family drives and rides one of the ferries to get to their rental home.
From the family’s 2014 vacation to Ocracoke, Sullivan’s nephew helps her now late father enter the water. She said it was her father who taught the nephew how to swim many years ago.
“Our lives are becoming so busy that it is sometimes hard to get away to facilitate and foster those relationships,” said Mary Beth DeWitt, chief of child psychology at Dayton Children’s Hospital in Ohio. “Travel and vacations in some ways protect that time to share new adventures, strengthen our bonds and increase well-being.”
Families are the foundation for relationship-building and social-emotional growth in children, DeWitt said. Having that time regularly carved out to support those building blocks within families bleeds into other facets of life, such as marital satisfaction, better self-esteem for children and better stress management, she said.
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At Ocracoke, Sullivan and her family live a simple life. They wake up and have breakfast together at the house. Then they pack up sandwiches and their gear and head to the beach, aiming to be there by late morning. They “stay out all day long,” she said, playing in the water, walking around, collecting seashells. At night they return to the house to either cook dinner or go out to eat before ending the night with leisurely activities such as putting together puzzles.
As Sullivan can attest, going together as a family provides a special opportunity for connection. No matter the type of activities or destination, family vacations offer time for family to engage with one another and create fond memories to look back on as they grow older.
‘This is who we are’
To take that even further, going to the same destination creates a family ritual that can improve many facets of family life, from marital satisfaction to health and wellness for children, DeWitt said.
It also helps a family come up with their own identity as a clan. Researchers confirm that such rituals help families “convey ‘This is who we are’ as a group and provide continuity in meaning across generations.”
Ocracoke place holds a special place in Sullivan’s – and the rest of her family’s – heart. “All of us have grown and changed there,” she said.
Sullivan’s mother, now in her late 90s, watches the younger generations play in the surf.
“It’s a very circle-of-life moment when you realize you’re giving beach-driving lessons to the teenage son of the toddler you used to build sand castles with. Our family continues to expand, to grow and change.”
Her son, now an adult, takes time on his own to visit Ocracoke Island multiple times a year, sometimes just for the weekend – his love for the place instilled by his family and the many memories made at the very special destination.