Char Smith was 9 when her single mother, Marilyn, died of cancer.
And through the power of family and the Internet, the now 16-year-old junior at Brainerd High School has reconnected with her mother and is helping others connect to their deceased loved ones, as well.
Char and her two distant cousins, Mandy Bundy, 13, and Karisa Powers, 14, both of Soldatna, Alaska, have created an educational Web site called, "The UnWritten, Saving Your Photo Stories For The Future."
The trio was recently selected as one of 36 semi-finalists in the fifth annual ThinkQuest Internet Challenge, competing against more than 725 Web sites created by other 12- to 19-year-olds.
On Oct. 15, the teens will find out whether they've placed in the top 10. If so, they'll travel to Cairo, Egypt, to attend the ThinkQuest 2000 Awards on Nov. 14. The grand prize is $25,000 college scholarships for all three teens, a contest that Mandy's and Karisa's older brother Granit won two years ago.
The extensive Web site, which the three teens created solely for the competition, allows Web users to learn how to find clues in photographs to unlock the door to their own family histories and learn how to interview family members to find additional family history. The Web site also allows visitors to read stories about the girls' own family history, including family stories of the 1918 influenza outbreak in Brainerd and the arrival of the 1947 Freedom Train in Brainerd.
The three teens have their own unique family history. They're descendants of Presidents William Henry Harrison and Benjamin R. Harrison.
"We're trying to help people who have hit these brick walls (while researching their family history), to tear them down and find the missing link," said Char.
During this research project, Char tore down a few brick walls of her own. Her mother kept journals from when she was 15 until a few months before she died at age 39. While Char has always had the journals, it wasn't until she began this project last year that she decided it was time to start reading her mother's more than 50 journals. They've helped her discover who her mom was.
"This is so much more than just a little project," said Char. "It has never been all about that (the $25,000 scholarship). It's been about me finding out more about my roots and my family history."
Char's mother also loved to take photographs. Unfortunately, she didn't write on the backs of many of the pictures. So Char is looking through her mother's journals to figure out who certain people are in the boxes of pictures she has.
If the teens qualify for the trip to Cairo, it would be the first time Char would meet her two Alaskan cousins. They've communicated almost exclusively through e-mail.
Char's ThinkQuest coach is Julie Smith, Nisswa. Julie is married to Char's cousin, Mitchel. Char has been raised by her aunt and uncle, Donna and Lee Smith of Brainerd.
To check out Char's, Mandy's and Karisa's Web site, go to http://library.thinkquest.org/C001313/. For more information about ThinkQuest, go to www.thinkquest.org.
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