DAYTONA BEACH -- Nearly 60 years after being split by adoptions, divorce and troubled times, five sisters from Rockford, Ill., are finally discovering what it means to be a family.
Barbara Zimmerman and Betty Lou Provost, two identical 59-year-old twins raised together by adoptive parents since they were toddlers, were still coping during a Sunday reunion in Daytona Beach with the recent discovery they had a large family they never knew existed. Ever since a surprise February package of letters and photos from the White Oak Foundation in Chicago reached Zimmerman, in St. Petersburg, and Provost, in Pensacola, tears of joy have been flowing.
"I couldn't get a sentence done without crying," Provost said of the notes that kept coming from sisters and younger family members.
Surrounded by about a dozen relatives from Illinois in town for the reunion at sister Pamela Zounes' Vine Street home, Zimmerman said she was stunned by the realization that all these people with familiar features and voices are "our" family.
"Even though we were adopted" from St. Vincent's Orphanage, near Rockford, by a caring couple so many years ago, "we never felt so much love as now," Zimmerman said.
Bits and pieces of the tale tumbled all over each other as each sister recalled family history.
Ever since several of the nine children of Helen Swanson Hedlund were divided up among grandparents and the orphanage during her five marriages, Jane Kling, at 70 the eldest, always felt "stigmatized" growing up without the regular family that then was the norm in the Midwest.
As the sisters and brothers scattered, including several still missing, most stayed in touch as they made families of their own, but for the first time, "this is OUR family," Kling stressed.
As a 10-year-old big sister, Kling said her mother let her name the twins Donna Rae and Bonnie Mae. But with the babies suffering collapsed lungs and bills piling up, the twins went to the orphanage.
For a while, Kling recalls visiting, but when the twins were about 2, they were adopted, their names changed and records sealed by law. Over the years, Kling said her efforts to battle the barriers of adoption officials were rebuffed.
But for the last 40 years, sister Beverly Ennis, 62, of Love's Park, Ill., remained determined. Ennis credits the persistence of her daughter, Sherry Scott, the Internet, and a Jan. 1 Illinois law allowing relatives more access to adoption records for breaking the trail to Florida.
Six months after Scott began searching the Net for leads in September, a Chicago agency "found them in three days" after getting on the case, said Ennis. The agency charged $56 for gathering detailed descriptions and locations from public records.
Although neither twins had registered, the Illinois Department of Public Health's adoption registry Internet site (www.idph.state.il.us/vital/ iladoptreg.htm) now allows exchanges of adoption information, with consent of family members involved. The $40 fee is waived if hereditary health information is exchanged.Speaking with their new-found family unity, the sisters see their happy experience as an endorsement for more states to open their adoption records to ease searches for divided families. Although grateful for the love of their deceased adopted parents, Vernon and Norma Zimmerman, the twins admit to feeling "a void" after they learned as fifth-graders that they were adopted.
Displaying a yellowed newspaper clipping, the sisters noted their own mother was adopted and unsuccessfully sought her biological parents later in life. Even though laws have traditionally aimed to protect the privacy of parents and children in adoptions, "people miss out on so much" by not knowing their blood relations, Provost said.©2000, The Daytona Beach News-Journal