LeiLoni Lee grew up in a happy, loving home. She was the first daughter after a string of four boys. A little sister came a few years later. A natural athlete, she excelled in basketball, volleyball, and track during her high school years. Life was good, but she never felt complete.
LeiLoni had been placed for adoption at birth, and as was the case with most adoptions during that time, her adoption was closed. Throughout the years her adoptive parents spoke lovingly of the woman who had placed her, though they had never actually met. They expressed gratitude for her selfless choice to place LeiLoni into their family.
LeiLoni knew bits and pieces of her makeup, only the things her adoptive parents had been told: her biological mother was Samoan, her biological father was black. LeiLoni’s adoptive mother talked of her birth mother’s beautiful, big, brown eyes and every time LeiLoni looked in the mirror, those eyes stared back.
Who had she come from? Where were they now? Should she look for them?
As she grew older, LeiLoni thought about these things, but was naturally afraid of the unknown. She knew there was a chance her birth mother wouldn’t want to be found. The fear of rejection kept her from searching. But upon the birth of her second child, she found herself looking at her two boys and wondering who they looked like. With her husband’s enthusiastic encouragement, she decided the time had come to try and find her birth mother.
She started by contacting the adoption agency that had handled her adoption, but was told that the records were sealed and that no information could be given. It was a discouraging start, but LeiLoni knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Then her husband had a suggestion: Put a picture up on Facebook with the basic information and ask people to share it. He had seen those kinds of posts floating around and thought it was worth a shot. LeiLoni wasn’t so sure. She didn’t think something like that could possibly work, but she decided it couldn’t hurt anything. After a week of putting it off, she finally conceded and threw together a sign on a poster board with the only things she knew: Her birthday, the name and location of the hospital, the ethnicities of her biological parents, and the name they had given her at birth: Jaleesa Lea.
Drawing in a deep breath, she published the picture. Within a short amount of time, people started sharing her post. Soon it had been shared over 1600 times. She was amazed when it was even picked up and shared by local television personalities. This was getting bigger than she had imagined.
Three days later, in a town 200 miles North, Jeanette Ugapo was spending an afternoon at home with her husband, children, and sister. When the phone rang Jeanette picked it up to hear another sister’s voice on the line. Jeanette’s mother, who lived 1500 miles away in Ohio, had just come across a picture on Facebook. It was a beautiful girl who was looking for her birth family, and she matched the description of the daughter Jeanette had placed for adoption twenty-three years earlier.
“Jeanette, she’s looking for you!” her sister sobbed.
Jeanette was in shock. There wasn’t a day in the last two decades when she hadn’t thought about that little girl. She too had wanted to look for her birth daughter, but was afraid of the outcome. Her adoption was something she had kept very close to her heart. She hadn’t talked about it much, and only a very small number of people even knew it had happened. Most people in her life didn’t know that at age sixteen she had placed a son for adoption, and then again at seventeen, Jeanette had found herself in another unplanned pregnancy, this time with a daughter, and had chosen to place her as well.
Jeanette had been raised by a single parent. She saw her mom struggle to provide for her and her sisters, and she knew that she didn’t want that for her children. After talking with her aunt and her mother, both times, she decided that adoption was the best choice. With her first adoption, she never knew much about the family her son went to. But with her second pregnancy, she met with an adoption counselor and gave her a list of the qualities she was hoping to find in an adoptive couple. She hoped that the mother would be able to stay at home and raise the baby. Two couples were presented, and neither potential mother was planning to stay home full-time. Her caseworker hadn’t been able to come up with any other couples she felt were a good fit, and so Jeanette chose the couple she felt best about out of those two. But something still felt off.
On January 28th, 1992, Jeanette gave birth to a baby girl she named Jaleesa. Later that day Jeanette’s caseworker came to visit her in the hospital. She was holding a new profile she wanted Jeanette to see. The caseworker explained that she didn’t know where the profile had come from, but it had suddenly appeared in her office. As Jeanette looked it over, she immediately knew that this was the family she had been hoping and praying to find. The next day, Jeanette was discharged from the hospital, and Jaleesa (who was to become LeiLoni) was placed into the arms of her parents.
Jeanette went on to marry and have three more children. She never spoke of the heartbreaking experiences she endured as a teenager. Her husband knew, but her children did not. The news that LeiLoni was looking for her brought back all the emotions from a time she had tried to forget. While Jeanette’s sister wanted to make contact with LeiLoni right away, Jeanette asked for a little time to process things.
The next day, Jeanette sat down and wrote an email to the address LeiLoni had provided. She explained that she had given birth to a baby girl on January 28th, 1992 that fit the description LeiLoni had given. She offered to send some baby pictures the agency had forwarded to her a few months after LeiLoni’s birth just to make sure it was really her.
It was now LeiLoni’s turn to feel shock. She couldn’t believe the Facebook post had actually worked. It had only taken FOUR days! She responded to Jeanette’s email right away and confirmed that the baby in those pictures was her. That night, they talked on the phone for the first time.
It’s hard to know what to say in a conversation of that magnitude. Catching up on twenty-three years of life with someone who is so intimately connected to you, and yet is a virtual stranger, is quite an interesting experience. But both women were humbled and excited to have found one another. They set up a meeting at a restaurant for the following week.
With the support of her husband, Jeanette knew she needed to share this big secret with her children. Her daughter, who was thirteen, took it the hardest; her two younger boys took it in stride, as only children can. She explained that while she didn’t know where her first son was, she had been found by her first daughter, and the following week they were going to meet her.
The meeting at the restaurant began with everyone in a bundle of nerves. LeiLoni, her husband, and two little boys were there to meet Jeanette, her husband, and her children. But soon everyone was conversing and getting to know one another better. For the first time in her life, LeiLoni looked into the face of someone who shared a resemblance. She certainly did have her birth mother’s eyes, and even their smiles were similar. LeiLoni’s three-year-old son looked very much like Jeanette’s six-year-old son. It was amazing for LeiLoni to see family traits in herself as well as in her children.
One of the beauties of Polynesian culture is their easy ability to extend their hearts and their families to bring others right in. This was the case as Jeanette welcomed her daughter back. Jeanette’s mother and sisters were eager to get in on the action as well, and soon Jeanette’s extended family was able to gather with LeiLoni’s family in celebration of LeiLoni’s newest son. LeiLoni’s parents shed tears as they hugged the woman who so selflessly placed a daughter in their home. They thanked her over and over again. Jeanette cried tears of relief, knowing that her baby girl had lived the life she had hoped for, in a loving home, full of siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents who felt blessed to have been a part of LeiLoni’s life.
Reconnecting has been healing on many levels. For LeiLoni, it has helped her to feel more complete. She looks forward to learning more about her heritage and sharing cultural traditions with her children. For Jeanette, peace has come, knowing that LeiLoni is all right, along with a confirmation that she made the right choice for herself and her baby during that difficult time. Being free to finally be able to share her story has also brought relief. Keeping such a huge part of her life hidden for so long was a heavy burden to bear, and it is now a burden she no longer has to carry.
It has been a few months since the two women were reunited, and they continue to carry on in the process of getting to know one another. They text almost every day and are enjoying the relationship that has come.
LeiLoni still has questions about her story: She discovered that she has a biological brother, whom Jeanette placed for adoption in 1991. And of course she still wonders about her biological father, whom Jeanette was unable to find after LeiLoni’s initial contact. But for now, she is taking things one step at a time. In the future she may decide to look for her brother and her father, but for now, she is content to develop the relationship she has with Jeanette. They have a lot of catching up to do.