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Gee family photo
The Gee family, celebrating seven children graduated from BYU.

One family, one college, all returned missionaries and a debt-free graduation: there was something to celebrate when the Shauna and Merrill Gee family watched their youngest two children walk across the Brigham Young University stage last week, the last in a 17-year span of having a child in college.

I am blessed with many fantastic relatives, but the cousins in this particular family have always amazed me. Their track record of hard work, service and cheerful well-being is something I’ve watched my entire life. I wanted to know their secret, so I called up two of my cousins and grilled them with questions.

How, for instance, did each one of the Gees' seven children manage to graduate from college without debt?

My cousin Andrew, who just graduated from BYU with a degree in math education, told me that growing up, he knew two things: he would go to college and he would pay for it all on his own.

When each child was born they received a bank account. They alone were expected to fill it, and they did, from the time they were very young. They did enormous paper routes. The older kids delivered the Salt Lake Tribune in the morning, while the younger kids delivered the afternoon Deseret News. They picked up odd jobs from neighbors and worked concessions at Hale Centre Theatre in West Valley City. Andrew collected and saved his coins like they were gold doubloons.

My cousin Natasha, now a wife and mother of three young boys, kept a thriving baby-sitting business from the time she was 8 years old.

“I look at that now and think, ‘I would never let an 8-year-old kid baby sit my kids,’ ” she said, “but that’s exactly what I did.”

Watching their accounts grow became somewhat of a family game. When the monthly statement arrived in the mail, the siblings would have a competition. They never revealed how much they had saved, but they loved to compare the interest on their savings.

Coupled with a sense of hard work, the Gee children were taught to serve. They had several elderly neighbors and their mom constantly made them aware of people in need.

“We shoveled driveways. We cleaned out the cabinets of older neighbors who couldn’t bend over easily,” Natasha said. “Mom was always pushing us out the door to serve. I don’t think I would have been aware of that on my own.”

They didn’t always go willingly. Andrew said he remembers a specific time when his mom was having him help a homeless man at an apartment complex in their neighborhood. He didn't want to do it. In fact, he was really upset he had to help.

“But that memory stuck with me,” he said. “In fact, that apartment complex is now one of my favorite places.”

It was that service piece that eventually led all seven kids to serve full-time missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to Italy, Germany, Uruguay, Peru, Washington state, Wisconsin and Kirtland, Ohio.

Though both of her parents served missions, Natasha said a mission was never on her radar. Her parents certainly never pressured her in that direction. But when the time came, she felt like she had been too blessed in her own life not to give back to the Lord.

Because of its low tuition, BYU was an obvious choice for most of the Gee kids. Plus, there was an ingrained love for their parents’ alma mater. Many of the family vacations as children involved driving from Salt Lake to the BYU campus for a day to explore the Monte L. Bean Life Science Museum and the Cougareat.

Even so, as BYU became more competitive, it wasn’t easy for all the kids to get accepted. Andrew was rejected on his first application, but his mom encouraged him to apply again. And again.

On his third try, he got in.

“My mom was very strict,” Natasha said. “She pushed us to do hard things and she wouldn’t let us quit.” Whether that was piano lessons or working as a night aide for an old woman in the neighborhood, that stick-to-itiveness taught the Gee children to keep moving forward.

Once at BYU, they took their hard-earned savings and frugal minds with them.

Natasha remembers showing up to her freshman apartment with two kitchen utensils: a plastic fork and bowl she got from a Wendy’s restaurant. When her parents came to visit and saw her roommate’s matching dinnerware, they were appalled.

But Natasha just laughed. “It was no big deal,” she said. “I used that plastic bowl for an entire semester!” And while she watched her roommates retaking classes and complaining about the demands on their time, she buckled down and got to work.

“Not getting (financial help) from my parents was a blessing. It was my money, my education, and I was paying for it,” she said.

She graduated in three years with a degree in math education. After working a year, she was able to help support her husband’s degree in optometry with the $60,000 she had saved while in college.

Because they are my cousins and I spent countless happy summers at their home, I can tell you something else about the Gee family: They are some of the nicest, happiest, content people you will ever meet. I felt that as a child, and I see it now, watching them grow their own families.

In an era of youth-entitlement and self-centered living, this family stands out. They are a reminder to me of the influence that parents can have to teach hard work and service.

They also remind me that happiness almost never comes from the acquisition of material goods, but in looking outward. That is the best kind of debt-free living.

Tiffany Gee Lewis lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, and is the mother of four boys. She blogs at thetiffanywindow.wordpress.com. Her email is tiffanyelewis@gmail.com.