Long-lost siblings have a lot of catching up to do

By Dori O'Neal, Tri-City HeraldNovember 3, 2012 

New Yorker Alfredo Luis Leon waited 35 years to be reunited with his younger twin sisters.

The last time they saw each other he was 9 years old and his sisters Jackie Lopez and Judy Whitsett, who live in the Tri-Cities, were 8.

The siblings, who are 10 months apart, also have an older sister, Aida, who hasn't yet been located.

Leon, 44, and his twin sisters were reunited in September when he came to the Tri-Cities to visit them. He ended up returning to New York, packing up his two children and moving across the country to be near his sisters permanently. He arrived a week ago.

"We'd already lost 35 years as a family and I didn't want to lose them again living so far away," he said.

Leon was a few months old when he and his older sister Aida were placed in a foster home in the Bronx. Their mother suffered from schizophrenia and was too ill to care for them, he said. When his mother gave birth to the twins less than a year later, they also were placed with a separate foster family in the Bronx.

The twins eventually were adopted, and Aida stayed in the foster care system while Leon ended up at the St. John's Home for Boys until he was 18. None of the siblings attempted to find their birth mother, and Leon said their father died long ago.

What makes their reunion even more unique is that when they were children and brought to the foster agency for visitations with each other they didn't know they were related. The twins found out after their last visit together, when their parish priest told them they were going to be adopted and would not see their brother or sister again, Lopez said.

Leon said he learned through the foster agency after the twins were adopted and moved away that they were his sisters.

"There was always something special, a bond we all felt during those visits to the foster agency," Lopez said. "We thought we were there just for play time with friends but it was more than that."

The last time the four met at the agency was for Leon's 9th birthday party where a photo was taken of them together.

"I never saw my sisters again after that day," Leon said. "But I always kept that photo close to my heart, believing I would see them again."

Their reunion happened when Leon, then a manager of an Italian restaurant in Glens Falls, N.Y., clicked on a piece of what he thought was spam email in May that said two people were looking for him.

"I can't tell you how many of those pop-up ads I've ignored through the years, but something told me to click on it that day," he said.

The link took him to mylife.com where, after paying a membership fee, he found information that eventually led him to a Facebook page for Lopez. He sent Lopez a message through Facebook telling her that if she had a sister named Judy, then he is the brother she's been looking for.

"That message sat there for a couple of months before it was looked at," Leon said. "I'll never forget the day Judy called. It was Nov. 13 at 11:35 p.m. Eastern time. She said, 'Who is this?' And then I said, 'Who is this?' She was skeptical and so was I, which is totally understandable."

Even after sharing information about their birth parents' names and the foster agency that handled them, Whitsett wasn't convinced this was her long lost brother. So Leon made a copy of the photo of the last time they were all together and emailed it to her via cellphone.

"As soon as she saw it, she knew and she started bawling, and so did I," Leon said. "I had tried to prepare myself for the day I would reconnect with my sisters but I found out you're never prepared. It was a very emotional time."

Lopez said a year ago she never would have believed they'd all be together again.

"I began my search for our brother about 10 years ago and wondered if we'd ever find him," she said. She searched adoptions.com and ancestry.com as well as mylife.com, posting information she hoped her brother would see.

"We never forgot him," she said. "There's a bond we've had since childhood. Judy and I knew we loved him even though we hadn't seen in such a long time."

Lopez and Whitsett moved to the Tri-Cities from the Bronx when they were in high school to live with their adopted brother. The girls graduated from Kamiakin High in 1987.

"Our adopted brother's wife was from here," Lopez said. "He encouraged my sister and I to come live with him because he wanted a better life for us -- for us to succeed and become successful."

Whitsett is a cashier supervisor for the Benton County Justice Center in Kennewick. She is married to Dan Whitsett, a coach at Tri-Cities Prep in Pasco, and they have four children.

Lopez, who also worked at the courthouse for about six years, is divorced with two children. She lives in Kennewick and is looking for work. Their brother has two children, age 10 and 4, and is living with Lopez until he finds a job and gets settled in the Tri-Cities.

"I have missed my sisters so much during my life," Leon said. "Now all we have to do is find Aida."

Leon stayed in periodic touch with his older sister but he lost track of her more than five years ago, he said.

"I know she went into the military and the last I heard she was training to be a commercial pilot in Florida somewhere," Leon said. "Aida was always a bit of a loner, but she's still our sister, and we hope to find her soon."

Besides this happy reunion with siblings, Leon and his sisters offer advice to others who might be looking for long lost family members.

Use the internet's many search engines and websites for message boards that might contain information about a missing family member.

"And never, ever give up hope that you'll find them," Leon said.

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