Family Services: My Favorite Pen Pal


If I had a nickel for every time I’ve been asked, “How did you find out you were adopted?” I would be a rich woman. There’s a widely held assumption that adopted children discover the buried truth about their familial history in a massive, emotionally-charged moment. My answer is surprising to some, but it shouldn’t be. My adoption is part of who I am. It always has been. I have always known.

I was born when most adoptions were closed and details sealed from both parties. I’m grateful for the commitment my parents and birth mother made to keep communication channels open, agreeing that it was in my best interest. At home, we talked about my adoption, birth mother, and the foster parents who cared for me immediately after I was born. We faithfully attended the annual Family Services picnic for adoptive families. My parents celebrated my adoption anniversary each year, telling me stories of the 12 years they waited for a baby. My mom and birth mother exchanged letters and, when I learned to write, I began penning my own.


Hannah with her mom at Family Services


Cheryl. I remember the day I saw her name for the first time. She was my favorite pen pal, and I brimmed with excitement each time Rebecca Nagaishi called from Family Services to tell us there was a new letter to pick up. We never shared identifying details, like last names, but knowing her first name was enough. Any time I saw the name Cheryl written somewhere—on a business card, at the dry cleaners, in a magazine—I’d secretly wonder if it was my Cheryl. Once, I saw “Cheryl” on a staff directory, and it was my Cheryl. I just didn’t know it at the time.

I was sixteen and interning at US Airways. On the first day, my supervisor introduced me to a few of the office employees before dropping me into a cubicle. I happily settled into my new digs, noticing a sheet of departmental contacts tacked to the cubicle wall. As had become routine, I quickly scanned the list for a Cheryl. When I spotted her name, I chuckled to myself. I saw many Cheryls over the years; none were mine. Had I peered around my cubicle wall to ask my neighbor for directions to the restroom or to borrow a pen, we would have come face-to-face.


Hannah’s family on the day her brother’s adoption was finalized 


The rest of my internship was uneventful, though I did change locations to work in a new department. I never met my cubicle neighbor that first day, but she knew me. She read the office memo about the intern. She heard my voice. She knew this Hannah was her Hannah. Unbeknownst to me, quiet conversations were held. Urgent phone calls placed. Arrangements made.

Months later, the story unfolded. Cheryl, my parents, and Rebecca had skillfully navigated an unprecedented, fated situation that day. We wanted to meet each other, but not as a chance encounter among cubicles. The timing had to be right. A year later, we planned to meet at Family Services.

I waited nervously in Rebecca’s office while my parents stepped into the conference room. Their relationship with Cheryl had begun before mine did; it was only fitting they’d meet first. Before long, the office door opened. “Are you ready?”


Family Services picnic with Sandra and Carl Bovender, Hannah’s foster parents 


Meeting Cheryl felt like seeing an old friend for the first time in a long while. Timid at first, our conversation grew more confident and comfortable as the minutes passed. I told her I had been accepted to Appalachian State University and was surprised to learn that she had once been a Mountaineer herself. We shared our mutual love of theater, and I learned more about her family and my half-siblings. I shared stories about my little brother, who was adopted through Family Services six years after me. When the time came to depart, we returned to our homes—only 10 miles apart.

Much has changed over the years. My mom sends me a text message on my adoption anniversary each year, but there are no annual picnics to attend. Facebook messages have replaced handwritten letters to Cheryl. Rebecca, a steadfast source of support for my family, still works at Family Services. The adoption program, however, has closed. Now, those program resources can be re-allocated to support the most critical and immediate needs of our community.

Though my story has taken many turns over the years, the foundation remains the same. I am a child of adoption, and my adoption has been acknowledged and celebrated at every stage of my life. I’m grateful to know Cheryl and to have been raised by incredibly supportive parents. I do not take this for granted, as I know that not all adopted children have the same experience. And I’m grateful to Family Services for navigating the waters of adoption for so many families. Their care and compassion have made all the difference in my life, and in the lives of so many others.


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