DOTHAN, Ala. (AP) – A sea of smiling faces made Barbara Colandrea and Carol Utecht feel more than welcome as they greeted their older sister and her family for the first time at the Dothan airport recently.
Colandrea and Utecht each traveled over 1,000 miles to meet their sister Darlene Hallford and her family, who live in Dothan.
Colandrea, of Newburgh, New York, and Utecht, of Rio Rancho, New Mexico, flew into the Atlanta airport where they met and flew to Dothan together for the meeting with their sister. The near weeklong visit to Dothan was their first time in Alabama.
“It’s just a once in a lifetime thing, that’s why we decided we had to come down to meet our sister for the first time. When are we ever going to be able to meet our sister for the first time?” Utecht said. “Everything has just fallen into place. It’s kind of neat we live in a day and age with the Internet and Facebook because otherwise we may never have found them.”
Darlene’s husband, Lamar Hallford, and their son, Ryan, spent several months getting their Dothan home ready for the union of the sisters.
But Lamar Hallford said it took a family effort to make the gathering possible, which included help from his daughter, Shannah Loper, and his son-in-law, Jonathan Loper.
Loper called each discovery leading up to the meeting of her aunts with her mother God’s timing.
“I definitely feel like it’s all part of God’s timing,” Shannah Loper said. “He has a reason and plan for everything.”
Lamar Hallford, who said they already knew his wife was adopted, said the search started after his wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) and they needed to find out more about her family’s medical history.
Darlene Hallford was born in Boston in 1953, and adopted by a couple who later moved to the Dothan area. Her adopted father was in the Navy and a native of Ozark.
“We started with a phone call to Boston, to some type of agency, which led to lots of phone tag,” Lamar Hallford said.
Hallford said they found a researcher who helped them with some of the legwork in the Boston area.
The Hallford family found Darlene’s birth mother around 12 years ago in New York. They received a return letter from her within a week confirming she was Darlene’s mother, but she hesitated about communicating with the family further.
“We weren’t going to push it,” Hallford said. “We honored her wishes for 11 years.”
Around three years ago during their research they discovered Darlene had three younger sisters.
Shannah Loper said she and her husband only had the last name of Utecht to start out with because her mother’s last name was Utecht. They later discovered her sister’s first names, including Carol Utecht. They found lots of Carol Utechts online.
One day in October 2014 in a search through Facebook they found a Carol Utecht who lived in New Mexico and had two sisters. They thought she must be the one.
Loper scanned a copy of a letter written by Darlene’s mother, and sent it to Carol Utecht in a Facebook message.
“The letter clinched it for me because I know my mother’s handwriting, and I knew it wasn’t just someone online,” Utecht said.
Hallford said his wife wouldn’t have found her sisters without their looking into her family’s medical history.
“Then she (Darlene’s mother) said she had a daughter with MS, and then it really made it important for us,” Hallford said.
Both Darlene and her sister, Carol, were diagnosed with MS in the mid 1990s.
Hallford said the positive and loving reaction from Utecht and Colandrea upon finding out they had another sister left his family pleasantly surprised.
“It meant everything,” Hallford said. “It meant a lot to Darlene because it makes her feel loved.”
Darlene met her third sister, Judy Husted, who couldn’t make the trip to Dothan, through a Skype conversation with her two other sisters.
Utecht said she’s been blown away by learning how much she has in common with her sister.
“This is so different,” Utecht said. “This kind of thing only happens on TV and in reality shows, not in real life.”
The three sisters got to know each other during a visit to the Tipsy Easel, a local art studio in Dothan. The sisters along with Shannah Loper all painted pictures of a flower together.
“Now we all have the same picture and every time we see it we’ll think of them,” Colandrea said.
Utecht said even though she and her sister were returning home Sunday the families will stay in touch.
“It doesn’t end here,” Utecht said. “There’s going to be correspondence and more visits.”