Twenty years ago, Wheeler Barnes, 88, and his relatives grew tired of coming together only at funerals. So, they contacted as many relatives as they could for a family get-together. About 50 of them gathered at a Washington motel in 1971 for the first family picnic.

This weekend, more than 600 people from eight root families -- the Barneses, Brevards, Buffords, Cauthens, McGriffs, Peays, Truesdales and Vaughns -- returned to Washington to attend a much more elaborate and eventful 20th family reunion.

"This is probably one of the biggest family reunions in America," said K. Wayne Scott, president of the American Family Society, a national organization that promotes family stability. Participants range in age from 91-year-old Bernice Cousar to 9-month-old Ian Alexander Lawrence.

Ian's parents drove from Sepulveda, Calif., to bring him to his first family reunion.

"It's all about keeping the family together," said Ian's mother, Theresa. "That's what we all need nowadays."

The "Cousins" reunion, which is being held at the Grand Hyatt Hotel downtown, consists of a banquet, a guided black history tour of the District, workshops for youth on career development, and talent and fashion shows.

The reunion is especially beneficial to young people, said Michael Payne, youth chairman for the Cousins organization. "It helps us understand one another. We can communicate better. It's not just for young or old, it's for everyone."

Yesterday, the group toured Frederick Douglass's home, Lincoln Park and other historic sites before returning to the hotel. At the evening workshops, older relatives talked to their younger kin about careers ranging from business to psychology.

"They may hear about something that they want to do, and if they do, they'll have a contact. It raises their self-esteem to know that there are people in our family who they can relate to," Payne said.

Ayana Lewis, 10, said that besides swimming in the hotel pool, meeting new cousins is the best thing about the reunion.

"I can learn more things about this family and I've met more relatives here from my grandmother's side. I like meeting my family," she said.

Members of the family live in Nigeria, Canada and the Virgin Islands as well as the United States. All are related by bloodline or marriage, and their common root is South Carolina, with all of their grandparents or parents having been born there.

"It's all for the love of family," said Othniel McGriff, national chairman of the Cousins organization. "It is important for all of us to come back to the family structure, particularly since we're losing our youth to drugs and violence. If we're going to save our youth, if we're going to save our family, we're going to have to go back to the black family."

The families have gathered in Camden, S.C.; Winston-Salem, N.C.; Detroit; and Los Angeles. Reunions are planned three years in advance. The annual event will be in Florida next year, and then Winston-Salem.

The reunion has become such a large undertaking that family members have established a nonprofit corporation, Cousins of Washington, D.C., Inc., to organize and manage the event. The organization has 13 executive board members and six national committees.

"We've been growing so much, we had to get organized," said Mattie Williams Manigault, public relations director for the organization. "The word started getting around by telephone and local media. We also have a family directory that we update each year."

Each of the 18 Cousins chapters meets monthly to plan fund-raising events and smaller get-togethers. The chapters sponsor raffles and cabarets, and use the money for scholarships.

McGriff said he hopes the Cousins organization will inspire such efforts by other families.

Wheeler Barnes, the patriarch of the family, agrees.

"This family is strong evidence that the black family is alive and well," he said. "Family unity is very important to us. A strong family is one of the keys to happiness."