An adoptee’s long search brings the joy of new family

July 22, 2020

A few weeks before Christmas, Shari Pasanowic got a holiday surprise: She learned she had an older sister who had been given up for adoption as a baby.

Shari was curious but hesitant to hunt for her newfound sibling. “I got nervous, like what if she doesn’t know she’s adopted, or she didn’t know we exist?” said Shari, now 49. “I was worried about rocking her world.”

But when Shari told her younger sister Jackie Boehner the news, it took all of 3 seconds for Jackie to begin searching.

“My mother was only 16 when she had the baby, so we never knew. I was hysterical, crying, when I found out,” said Jackie, 35. “I remember it was a Sunday. I immediately googled adoption agencies in Trenton and started calling around trying to track her down. Because it was a Sunday, I had to wait.”

She didn’t have to wait long. The next day, Jackie connected with Nancy Morrell of Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton’s Post Adoption Services/Research and Reunion Program.

Catholic Charities helped place thousands of babies in loving adoptive families over the past century, facilitating adoptions until six years ago. Consequently, the nonprofit maintains extensive adoption records and assists adoptees and their birth families in finding each other, if both parties have consented. The program helped about 90 people research or reunite with their families last year, Morrell said.

In this case, the sister Jackie and Shari never knew about had been trying to find her birth family for decades. Amy Gates, now 51, had reached out to Catholic Charities many years earlier, but her file had scant details. When Jackie called in December, Morrell discovered Amy’s information in the file and was able to make the connection. By Christmas, the sisters had reunited by phone.

In January, Amy traveled from her Marlton home to Florida, where Jackie and Shari now live, to meet her sisters.

The reunion was bittersweet, because their birth mother Mary Jo Gardus died 35 years ago. But the sisters bonded over their shared looks — all three have Mary Jo’s dark hair, brown eyes, and wide smile. And they marveled at minor coincidences that hinted at larger connections, like mutual affinities for Chapstick, Coke and JuicyFruit gum, and a common “free spirit” personality.

“We just clicked,” Amy said. “It was really fun, and I was very happy that we got along.”

The sisters appreciated how quickly Catholic Charities connected them.

“I had backup plans about what exactly I was going to do, if I couldn’t find her right away,” Jackie said of Amy. “I was going to go to court to try to get her birth certificate. And there’s a reality TV show called ‘Find my Family’ that I applied to. But this was the fastest and easiest finding-your-siblings-that-you-never-knew-you-had. It was awesome. It was easier than changing a tire.”

Catholic Charities used to hire private investigators to assist in searches, Morrell said. But advances like the Internet, social media and DNA testing have made adoption research easier in recent years. New Jersey lawmakers further facilitated adoption research in 2017 by allowing adopted people to obtain their original birth certificates, which previously had been sealed.

Morrell said her job brings her joy, thanks to reunions like this one.

“The sisters all had so many losses, between not knowing each other and losing their birth mom so young,” said Morrell, who has been with the program and Catholic Charities for over 25 years. “But from this point on, they have each other, and that’s good.”

Amy plans to move to Florida when her sons, now in high school, graduate. Between them, the sisters have nine children, so they’re excited the kids will get to know their new cousins. The sisters feel like their late birth mother would be delighted to see them together now.

“She would have been proud that she made the right decision [to give Amy to adoptive parents], because she was so young at that time,” Shari said. “I’m so grateful that we were able to reunite. It’s just going to continue to get better.”

Amy agreed: “It’s a shame I missed out on my sisters all these years, but we will make up for that lost time now.”

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