I have the pleasure of hosting two Duke Students this summer at Amara within the Post-Adoption Program. They are here through the DukeEngage program - a program where students engage in an immersive service experience to organizations both in the U.S. and abroad. John and Julia are living in the University of Washington dorms and take public transit to our office in M-F 9-5. I am impressed with Julia’s reflections on her time with us thus far, which I’ve copied & linked to below:
My supervisor at Amara, Angela Tucker, the director of the Post-Adoption Program and an adoptee herself, introduced me to the concept of ‘adoptee rights’ on my first day of work. I had never heard of this before, and, honestly, had never considered it…
Every day at work, while reviewing these files, I can’t help but reflect on my own family and identity. Now more than ever I feel so privileged that I know my ancestry, my family history, my cultural background; I feel privileged that I have unrestricted access to my own birth certificate and my own medical records. I have baby pictures of myself; I have a strong sense of place and belonging in a loving family; there is no uncertainty in or redaction of my life’s history; I know who I am and where I come from. These are privileges that millions of adoptees—both children and adults—do not have.
One week ago I recieved a call from my aunt, who was at the hospital, listening to Sandy take his last breath. Her call came after Sandy had complained for a few days of chest pain, and having a hard time breathing. Sandy died at the young age of 61. He died having known that he had a daughter for just 10 years.
My mom, my husband and I flew down to Chattanooga, Tennessee to mourn with the community. The wake, viewing, funeral and memorial services were emotional and powerful. I heard from so many of you, recounting the stories of ways that Sandy impacted you as he rode around town with a big smile, emanating a kind spirit and a bundle of flowers in his hand. The photo series below captures only a handful of the incredible tributes and stories.
Jan 24, 1958 - Jan 27, 2019
Ashley Paul, Thank you for creating a decal of Sandy’s bicycle with a flower hanging out of the front basket. What a lovely way to help remind us of his joy on a daily basis!
Jake Eaves - thank you for drawing this fun caricature of Sandy for all of the guests at the SouthSide Social to enjoy!
Mayor Andy Berke, a Valentines Day dedication is a perfect tribute to my birthdad’s mission to spread love through flowers!
Kyndel Stumpff - Wow! What talent you have to create this 3D art piece! Love the details - right down to Sandy’s infamous muscular arms. :)
The meaning that you baked in to the melted metal as you hammered away at my pendant is so beautiful. Thank you for all the ways that you honor life. I just love it.
Liza Greever, you mobilized a grieving community in such a remarkable way. I’m so grateful to all of the florists who organized this dedication in the downtown corridor. I’d never seen anything like it.
Rose at the Palace Theater,
Thank you for offering the community a time to grieve together and find some semblence of “closure,” through the free screening of the film at your theater.
Danimal, you wrote lyrics and created a song about his infamous phrase “it’s a beautiful day!” Let me know when it’s available to download so I can listen to it in my car whenever I need.
“Cause Sandy came around”
Rode his bicycle for hours With basket full of flowers And a smile that hit the center of your heart
Never asked for anything Just rode his bike and heard us sing The songs about our petty little life’s
Love was all he had to give Goddamn he showed us how to live The way that we all know, that we all should
Little DID we know, he let us in To the heart that never has an end The heart lets us be the way we are Ch1 ——-
oh what treasure we all found Now “It’s a beautiful day” Cause Sandy Came around V1——-
I only saw this side of him The one that helped us grow within The one thing we know will still live on
5 dollars in my guitar case I’d trade a rose, in its place And give it to somebody that I love
See, he changed money into love Like some magic trick from far above And we all smiled and just went about our day
And that was it, as simple as that He rode away, and there we sat Left a little brighter than before ——- oh what treasure we all found Now “It’s a beautiful day” Cause Sandy Came around Cause Sandy Came Around ——— I know now love is all around Where the music plays You can hear that sound Of a Bicycle and a basket full of flowers
So here’s to Sandy, The Flower Man Someday we’ll all understand It’s a beautiful day
oh what treasure we all found Now “It’s a beautiful day” Cause Sandy Came around
Raj, Joseph Lipsey and John Henry, Thank you for putting on an incredible event for the community. Your compassion and generosity echoes what you so dearly loved about Sandy.
Can’t wait to see the statue!
Travis Knight - this incredible piece of art now hangs in my home office, so I can glance over and view at any time.
I’m jealous of the 20 hours Sandy sat for your portrait drawing session - you got to know him in ways that i can only dream. I’m so thankful for your gift of the portrait!
Thank you for printing out so many of these beautiful cards. I am so touched that you would use your resources in this way!
GoFundMe community, you came together and donated almost exactly the amount needed to cover his funeral and memorial services.
To my colleagues at Amara, and my friends back home in Seattle - thank you for your virtual support. The texts and voicemail messages helped keep me grounded through this past week.
Brittany, you shared about how Sandy saved your life after you’d been through one tragedy after another. A sprig of the Baby’s Breath flowers he gave you, that you then gave me, will always live in this locket. Your life is precious. Thank you for sharing so much with me.
Thank you Chattanooga for loving Sandy so well. Leah and Eddie Bridges, thank you for being the glue of the downtown community - I treasure knowing that he had such beautiful friends.
I was honestly struck when I saw you smile; you look so much like him.. and like him, your spirit just radiates sunshine somehow; light that I so desperately needed came in the form of that same smile a few years ago. I will never be able to adequately put into words how much his kindness meant to me then and now.
After living so many years not knowing for whom I resembled, it now feels like I’m giving a gift when I smile - the gift of keeping Sandy’s spirit alive.
After growing up with seven siblings who were adopted into the family and one sibling who was biologically connected to my parents, I recognize that society places a higher value on children born biologically than those who are adopted.
“I want to adopt, but I’m going to have biological kids first.” Have you heard anyone say that? Or have you said it? It’s a common phrase that people say without putting much thought into. But as an adoptee myself, the idea of “biological first” carries a great deal of weight – and even pain.
When people say “I’m going to have bio kids first,” it prioritizes having “your own” – as though adoption is a good and charitable thing to do, but it’s just not the same as having biological kids.
For five years, I worked with hundreds of couples hoping to grow their family through adoption. The initial conversations included explanations of their motivation to adopt, for which I heard a similar story almost every time. They talked about their painful journey to my office, which included unsuccessful IVF bouts followed by the heartbreaking decision to move forward with adoption. The tearful statements were often followed up by an eager admittance that they hoped to be one of the lucky couples that gets pregnant right after adopting a child. I never had the courage to tell them that this is an old wives’ tale.
Through these experiences, as well as growing up with seven siblings who were adopted into the family and one sibling who was biologically connected to my parents, I recognize that society places a higher value on children born biologically than those who are adopted.
As the Director of Post-Adoption at Amara I am tasked with supporting individuals as they navigate the complexities of their adoption stories whether they are young children or 95 years old. For most of the 20th century best practices included closed adoptions, which meant ensuring no contact between birthparents and the adoptive family after an adoption takes place. Nowadays, we recognize the importance of transparency and the benefits of a child knowing about their birth family and ideally being in each other’s lives.
Amara files from the 1950s
Upon beginning my tenure at Amara I found a large number of neglected files full of search and reunion requests from adoptees and birth families. While disheartening, this problem is not rare – especially for child welfare organizations with a long history. Typical staff turnover and 900 finalized adoptions in the almost 100 years of Amara’s history have resulted in some files being overlooked. And though this may be common, we consider it to be unacceptable. So, in March 2018, we launched Project Search & Reunion. The goal of this project is to audit 3,100 of our own adoption files between the years of 1950 and 2000 to ensure that adoptees and birth families receive the information and support they requested, especially in regard to searching.
This project is unprecedented, as far as we are aware. We are pushing back against the status quo for adoptees and their families in terms of what information they’ve been “allowed” to see and share. We hope this project helps fuel a change in the way adoptions are addressed in the United States. Adoption files often sit dormant behind locked doors as Sealed Records laws prevent adoptees from seeing their own file. However, we firmly believe that all individuals have a fundamental right to access information about their biological origins. And we are committed to providing as much access to Amara adoptees as we can legally provide.
We are already learning quite a bit about adoption practices from the past. For example, we learned that in the 1950s, we conducted IQ tests on children as young as 8-months old to determine if they’d be a good match for an adoptive family. We have read about the women who were “sent away” to be housed in Florence Crittenton Homes to hide their pregnancies from their community. And we have seen, in our own files, instances where adoptees were not told that they are of Native American ancestry. Each of these revelations is alarming.
Sandra* was one of the first people Amara reached out to as part of Project Search and Reunion. Amara called Sandra in March 2018 to share that her birth mother had requested to meet her in 2004, but that, unfortunately, we had not shared this information with her at that time. We also shared that her birth mother has since passed away. To my surprise, Sandra was quite understanding, stating; “I don’t think I would’ve been able to follow through with meeting my birthmother at that time because I love my [adoptive] parents too much and this would’ve hurt them.” We are supporting Sandra as she grapples with the nuanced feelings of guilt about wanting to uncover her personal story while not wanting to “betray” her adoptive parents. This is a common dilemma for adopted people who grew up in an era where secrecy in adoption was prevalent.
Through beginning to share about Project Search and Reunion, the response has been astounding. One individual who was adopted through Amara wrote to us stating:
“…about 14 years ago, I contacted Medina (Amara) and received a letter with non-identifying information** from my file, however, I am so excited at the potential for more info. My biggest over the top wish? A picture of me as a newborn. Second biggest wish – names of the people who cared for me the two weeks from birth to placement. #nomoresecrets #adoption #myadoptedheart #adoptionhealing #itsmybirthright”
We are honored and privileged to conduct this momentous work. We are unsure of our timeline, and can only surmise what lies within those files, but we are committed to full transparency. Righting our organization’s historical wrongs is a humbling process, and we hope this offers a blueprint for the future of openness and access to adoptee records!
*Names have been changed for confidentiality.
**Non-Identifying Information – Agencies are legally allowed to provide adoptees with non-identifying information which includes very basic details about the birth family members. By definition, non-identifying information cannot lead to or disclose a birth parent’s identity — it does not include the parent’s name, birth date, address or phone number.
It’s 2:30am on Tuesday morning and Lucretia is doing laundry while humming the tune of The Band Played On, a popular song of 1895.
Casey would waltz with a strawberry blonde
And the band played on.
He'd glide 'cross the floor with the girl he adored
And the band played on.
But his mind was so loaded it nearly exploded…
The last line is one she’d repeat often during our time together; a time of overwhelming new information and long-lost connections. Just one week ago, Lucretia learned she has an 89-year-old biological brother who lives in Seattle, Washington. Tomorrow, the siblings will meet for the first time. Indeed, her mind was loaded.
In 1923, Lucretia was left at the Medina Baby Home by her biological parents. 15 months later, she was adopted. Lucretia learned she was adopted from a peer in third grade although her adoptive mother denied this truth - even on her deathbed. Lucretia stayed in touch with Medina (now Amara) over the years as she always wondered about her beginnings. Why was she dropped off at an orphanage? Who were her birth parents? Did she have any siblings?
Having grown up in a closed adoption myself, I understood Lucretia’s anguish in a visceral way. In my role as the Director of Post-Adoption Services at Amara, I decided to enlist further support from Della, a former journalist turned amateur genealogist whose keen investigative skills and historical insight helped me understand important aspects of my biological family story. The most nagging question Lucretia desired to have answered was about her birth mother’s origins: “Some of my paperwork states that she was born in Texas and other documents say Mexico. Can you help me figure out which is true?” I thought Della to be just the person to help complete the puzzle of Lucretia’s life story. With Della’s help, Lucretia completed a DNA test through ancestry.com.
Photo Credit: Della Kostelnik Juarez
Three months after Lucretia submitted her DNA, I received a phone call from Della. She had located a previously unknown biological brother of Lucretia’s through finding a match on a census! Charles, an 89-year-old man living out his retirement in Seattle, had answered Della’s phone call and immediately recounted stories from his childhood about his sister named Lucretia, whom he’d never been able to find but always knew existed. Through all of the complex emotions Charles felt, he desired to visit his big sister - and soon. As one may suspect, there is a certain urgency to such things when you’re almost 90 years old and in less-than peak health. Charles bought a ticket to San Francisco for the following week.
Just a week later, I found myself sharing a meal with Lucretia at the Heritage, a retirement community in the Marina district of San Francisco, to support her in meeting her biological brother for the first time. Often, supporting such meetings means wading through complex emotions of grief, guilt, and anxiety – yet Lucretia was remarkably calm, waxing poetic about topics such as how modern technological advances have served to isolate people, measuring this statement against her childhood memories of neighbors helping each other on the farm during the Great Depression. She shared about being pastored by civil rights leader Howard Thurman (a powerful influence on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr) when she attended the first racially integrated, intercultural church in the United States. The more Lucretia spoke, the more my appreciation and amazement grew.
San Francisco Hills
Throughout our meal, we were frequently interrupted by her friends, residents of the facility, who came up to ask Lucretia, “Have you met your brother yet!?” and “When will he be here!?” She excitedly answered “He’ll be here tomorrow! Oh, and I’d like to introduce you to my new friend, Angela - she was adopted too!” 63 years her junior, I beamed inside at the honor to be considered a friend to someone who had experienced so much in nearly a century of life.
After spending the better part of the day at the Heritage, I returned to my hotel room, changed into jogging clothes, and ran up some of San Francisco’s infamous hills. As I took in the sweeping views of the Marin Headlands, I was overwhelmed by the magnanimity of this woman that I’d come to love.
I kept returning to her unceasing attitude of contentment and gratitude at finally having the opportunity to meet her brother – rather than anger at all the years missed. As my feet pounded the pavement, I realized that tomorrow’s meeting was likely to be unlike any other birth family reunion I’d supported. Due to the fact that both Lucretia and Charles’ adoptive and biological parents are deceased, this affair would not be focused on dynamics between those family members (adoptive and birth) but on helping Lucretia integrate and accept a new narrative about her life. I pondered the thought that neither Lucretia nor Charles may live long enough to make up for time lost as siblings. With my quads burning and the Golden Gate Bridge coming into view, I couldn’t help but hear Lucretia humming The Band Plays On, the last line resonating strong for me: My mind was so loaded it nearly exploded…
Wednesday was Charles and Lucretia’s first meeting. It was a private and sacred affair as they desired to share details about their family without anyone else present. It is my understanding that some of Lucretia’s pressing questions were answered at that time.
L:R Angela, Lucretia, Charles
On Thursday, we dined together, which primarily was a silent time of contentedness and delight. Lucretia and Charles stared at each other with gratitude in their eyes, which reminded me of the moment I first looked into my biological sisters’ eyes. I was 26 years old, she was 29 and yet I momentarily saw us as children playing in the yard together in a Cosby show-esque home - I was fantasizing about what could’ve been. I wonder what was going through Lucretia’s mind.
After our lunch, my mind was even more full. I strapped on my running shoes and hit the hills again. With Alcatraz in view and the smells of the Fisherman's Wharf in the air, I felt a certain emotional relief as the barking of sea lions interrupted the soundtrack of my racing thoughts. I couldn’t help but wonder why neither Lucretia nor Charles expressed any anger that they weren’t connected sooner. I wondered if my presence had eased the emotional brunt of this moment enough for their frail bodies to withstand it all. I hoped with all my might that this reunion would remain life-giving and fulfilling for both Charles and Lucretia. In my past experience, a difficult to explain sadness can follow such extreme moments of joy.
Mostly, I reflected on the enormity of this experience. Lucretia lived through the Great Depression in the 1930s, served as an army nurse during World War II in the 1940s, was a reproductive rights activist during Roe v. Wade in the 1970s, was incarcerated for civil disobedience while protesting nuclear disarmament in the 1980s and lives a remarkably independent life at 95 years old. Yet, she was clear that finding and meeting her biological brother for the first time was unquestionably the pinnacle experience of her life. I was floored by this reminder of the life-long importance of working towards reconnecting, repairing, and restoring connections with family.
Lucretia said it best – and more than once: “I’ve had a lot of beautiful times in my life, but this one tops them all. Who knew miracles were possible at 95 years old?”
With sore calves and a full heart, I have found this experience almost too great to bear. What an honor.