Graham Shelby was just 18 years old in 1989 when he got to experience one of the biggest moments in his young life. In a piece written for The New York Times, Shelby details the first time he met his biological father in a Holiday Inn parking lot and the relationship which followed.
Shelby and his father, Jimmy Godwin, had been corresponding regularly for about three years before meeting in person. While Shelby grew up with his mother and stepfather who adopted him, it was important for him to know about his biological father.
Shelby recalled, “I hugged Jimmy, who seemed startled, but hugged me back. We went inside, and our first conversation was surreal and overwhelming, but afterward, he wasn’t a mystery anymore, and neither was I.”
Sadly, Godwin passed away in 2008, though Shelby recalls the relationship they built from 1989-2008 as a fond memory. Adoption reunions were not quite as simplified in 1989 with the absence of social media and DNA technology we have available today.
When taking on an adoption search, Shelby notes some tips that can prevent heartbreak and additional stress. The first tip is to take your time. Pam Slaton, who runs an investigate DNA genealogy search service in New Jersey advises, “Take it step by step. It’s a little like dating. Have one conversation, then another….So much anxiety goes into that first meeting. It’s a lot to process.”
The second tip Shelby notes is to look for support. April Dinwoodie, founder of the foster care mentor program Adoptment, found out through her adoption search that she had been the result of a sexual assault. The news was understandably devastating. As she met additional family like her half-siblings, Dinwoodie was thankful to have the support of her adoptive sister. She advises anyone searching to “find as much support as you can.”
Adam Pertman, president of the National Center on Adoption and Permanency, also states that adoptive parents should support of their child’s search for identity. He notes, “Be supportive. This is not a betrayal. This is a human being looking to complete the picture of his or her life.”
In general, reunions can be daunting and do not always turn out how you envision. Shelby suggests bringing something like a photo album to break the ice. While it is important to take your time, Shelby also notes that you should be wary of waiting until it’s too late.
Shelby notes an email from one of his interviewees Ms. Slaton, author of Reunited: An Investigative Genealogist Unlocks Some of Life’s Greatest Family Mysteries. In the email she tells of her shock stating, “My birth mother showed up at my front door today. This after 23 years….She is dying of cancer. She’s still here but left to make a call in her car. I’m stunned.”
If you are interested in searching for and reuniting with someone in your own adoption story, social media and DNA testing make it much more possible. For more information on where to start, check out our Search and Reunion Guide.
Your first step in your search and reunion journey is to register in Adoption.com’s Reunion Registry.