‘The big­gest Christ­mas gift’

Michi­gan City woman re­unites with long-lost younger sis­ter

Post Tribune (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Mered­ith Co­lias-Pete Post-Tri­bune

Grow­ing up thou­sands of miles apart, a Michi­gan City woman had an un­likely and emo­tional re­union with a sis­ter she didn’t know she had last month at Chicago’s O’Hare In­ter­na­tional Air­port.

The two sis­ters were both born in Odessa, Ukraine. One — Leanna Hall, 26, now of Michi­gan City, grew up there and was adopted as a teen in Porter County. The other, Nad­jezda Lof, 23, was adopted at four and grew up in Swe­den.

It took de­ter­mi­na­tion from Nad­jezda, who is known as Na­dia, and years of search­ing, dead ends, faulty pa­per­work and help from ex­tended fam­ily in Ukraine to find each other.

It was “the big­gest Christ­mas gift,” Leanna said of their re­union.

Grow­ing up apart

In 1992, Leanna was born in Odessa, Ukraine.

Her par­ents, Maria and Sergei, were heroin ad­dicts, she said. Her ma­ter­nal grand­mother tried her best to give some sta­bil­ity. She once men­tioned she had a sis­ter, who had died ear­lier, Leanna said.

Around 7 or 8, she was sent to a Ukrainian shel­ter, then an or­phan­age. At 14, an Amer­i­can woman liv­ing in Porter County adopted her.

She came to the States with a pic­ture that showed her grand­mother and birth mother Maria as a teen.

In 1995, Nad­jezda was born three months pre­ma­ture. She was aban­doned at the hospi­tal. A few months later, she was sent to a dif­fer­ent Ukrainian or­phan­age.

A cou­ple from north­ern Swe­den adopted her at age 4. They also adopted an­other boy from the same or­phan­age, she said.

Her Swedish par­ents were open about her adop­tion. With few mem­o­ries of her birth par­ents, the need to know nagged her for years. She started look­ing as a teen, but ran into sev­eral dead ends.

Her only clues in the search were her par­ents’ names, mother’s age and an ad­dress where they once lived from the adop­tion pa­pers.

In Oc­to­ber, Nad­jezda went to Ukraine to ap­pear on a TV show that spe­cial­ized in lost fam­ily re­unions with her adopted brother. It found sev­eral rel­a­tives for him.

How­ever, most of her im­me­di­ate birth fam­ily, such as her par­ents and grand­mother, had al­ready died, it found.

It lo­cated an older cousin, Dmitry, and gave her his Face­book page. The show said she had a sis­ter that had been adopted in the United States, but had no other in­for­ma­tion.

“Is she alive or not,” Nad­jezda said. “And they said we didn’t know.”

Her cousin had re­mem­bered Leanna. He and his fam­ily

helped con­nect Nad­jezda to find her sis­ter’s adop­tion pa­pers and new name. That led to Leanna’s Face­book page.

‘We couldn’t stop hug­ging.’

On Nov. 5, her cousin sent a cryp­tic mes­sage to Nad­jezda: be on­line in one hour. His later mes­sage: I’ve found your sis­ter.

The sis­ters con­nected via Face­book.

“I clicked on her pro­file and my heart just dropped,” Leanna said. “She looked ex­actly like our mother. Just a spit­ting im­age of her.”

On­line mes­sages led to their first talk, which lasted four to five hours, they said. At first, it was over­whelm­ing to have a stranger who knew so much about her, Leanna said. She was send­ing fam­ily pic­tures she got from their cousin.

They talked for hours each night. Then, Nad­jezda’s par­ents paid for her flight to Chicago.

At O’Hare, they had an emo­tional re­union on Dec. 17.

She was up un­til 3 a.m. that morn­ing mak­ing a homemade poster. Then Nad­jezda ar­rived. She aban­doned ev­ery­thing and ran up to her sis­ter.

“We couldn’t stop hug­ging,” Leanna said.

Their ap­pear­ance was strik­ing — with the same eyes. They had some of the same man­ner­isms.

Within a few hours, Nad­jezda, a pro­fes­sional-level vol­ley­ball player, was on the court for a pickup game in Val­paraiso.

Since she ar­rived, the sis­ters have kept a whirl­wind cal­en­dar — vis­it­ing the Barker Man­sion in Michi­gan City, friends, shop­ping, a con­cert, a New Year’s Eve party at a Hilton ho­tel in Chicago.

She wanted her sis­ter to see her au­then­ti­cally, “ex­actly how I live here,” Leanna said. “She’s seen the raw me, or what­ever you want to call it.”

Af­ter Nad­jezda re­turns to Swe­den, they have pledged to re­main in touch and visit each other as of­ten as they can.

They be­lieve their fa­ther died last year. Their mother died about a decade ear­lier, they said. Both are un­sure if they could have half-sib­lings in Ukraine on their fa­ther’s side.

‘You don’t think that’s ever go­ing to hap­pen to you.’

“I think for Na­dia, Leanna was a link to the fam­ily she never knew,” Leanna’s adopted mother, Jen­nifer Hall, said. “Leanna knew who her par­ents were. She knew what hap­pened.”

A lit­tle over a decade ago, Hall, now 49, a lab su­per­vi­sor, said she was look­ing to adopt in­ter­na­tion­ally. She agreed to host an in­ter­na­tional or­phan for two weeks in the sum­mer.

The agency then called and asked if she would con­sider host­ing a sec­ond girl, Leanna.

Speak­ing lit­tle English, she was shy, but with a “big smile,” Jen­nifer re­called. Asked what drew her to Leanna: “You just kinda know.”

“I just loved her from the start,” Jen­nifer said, a Chester­ton na­tive. “I just felt some­thing about her. She needed a chance.”

Two years later, the adop­tion was com­pleted. Leanna, then 14, moved from Ukraine to Chester­ton and started high school that year.

“She wouldn’t even ex­press to me how hard it was,” Jen­nifer said. “She didn’t speak the lan­guage, you have no friends. You are start­ing high school, which is a trauma in it­self.”

Her adopted daugh­ter picked up English “wicked fast” and “has re­ally come out of her shell” while es­tab­lish­ing her new life, she said. Leanna now stud­ies busi­ness in col­lege at Ivy Tech.

Nad­jezda’s sur­fac­ing was sur­pris­ing, but “pretty cool,” she said. Her re­sem­blance to their birth mother Maria was strik­ing, Jen­nifer said.

“When Leanna first told me and (and showed the pic­ture of Nad­jezd ), I’m like, ‘Oh my God, that is your mom,’ ” she said.

Their re­union was even more amaz­ing since Ukrainian sib­lings are gen­er­ally adopted to­gether. In this case, that was ob­vi­ously mud­dled.

“You just don’t think that’s ever go­ing to hap­pen to you,” Jen­nifer said.


Nad­jezda Lof, 23, kisses her sis­ter Leanna Hall, 26, at FLUID Cof­fee Bar in Val­paraiso. The two found one an­other af­ter be­ing placed in a Ukrainian or­phan­age and end­ing up in dif­fer­ent adop­tive homes.

Sis­ters, Leanna Hall, 26, left, and Nad­jezda Lof, 23, show off their sim­i­lar hands.


Sis­ters, Leanna Hall, 26, left, and Nad­jezda Lof, 23, look over some of the items they have left of their bi­o­log­i­cal his­tory in the Ukraine.

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