Reconnecting Families and Changing Lives: The Power of the Red Cross

Story by Lynn Levine, Regional Manager, Boston, Massachusetts

Two families’ lives were changed recently. That is the power of the Red Cross.

A few weeks back, a request to locate John P. Smith a.k.a. John Jr.* landed on my desk.  Reconnecting families after disaster, war, or other humanitarian emergencies is a fundamental activity of the Red Cross. When families are separated across international borders, the Red Cross’ Restoring Family Links program is there to help.

In the case of John Jr., I was a little skeptical about our chance at success. He has a very common name, and Philippo, the seeker and John’s uncle, had not had any contact with him or his sister Maria in 40 years.

What we knew was that John H. Smith a.k.a. John Sr. had served in Italy during World War II. While there, he married a young Italian bride, Ariana, and had two children, John Jr. and Mary. They later divorced, and John Sr. moved back to the US with his children. A few years later, after their father’s early death, the children were placed in foster care.

Philippo, Ariana’s brother, began looking for the children not long after John Sr. left Italy. He eventually moved to Australia, but never gave up the search. According to Philippo, Ariana never gave up looking either, but in the early years after her ex-husband’s departure, she remained embarrassed and reclusive, given that divorcees were not looked upon kindly at that time. Philippo’s renewed search was prompted by Maria’s death three years ago and his own advancing age.

As we began our search, we learned through public records, that John Jr. and his wife were deceased. The only remaining leads were the name of their possible daughter, Louise, and a list of telephone numbers of anyone who might have been connected to John Jr. The outcome of every phone call was a frustrating, “This number is no longer in service.”

There was little more to go on at that point. Each and every search using a combination of all the names involved turned up either results on Ancestry written by Philippo years ago or dozens of families named Smith. Furthermore, searching for John Jr.’s sister, Mary Smith, who by now would most likely have married and changed her name, would be tantamount to searching for a needle in a haystack. That left Louise as the only viable lead.

The name Louise Smith resulted in dozens of dubious leads, while numerous cold calls to strangers with the surname Smith turned out to be all dead ends. 

Then a light bulb went off in my head.

By comparing the city’s property tax records with online maps, I could make a list of every neighbor in the vicinity of the last known address. Twenty-five letters and a week later two neighbors had contacted me. But it was the emotional call that came almost two weeks later that put all the puzzle pieces in place.

It was a woman named Lisa, Mary’s daughter. “I’m calling on behalf of my cousin Louise Smith,” she said. “We received a letter from you in the mail regarding relatives of ours who are trying to get in touch with us and we are very anxious to talk to you.”

“My cousin, Louise, is the one you sent the letter to. I’ll give you a little more detail when we have a chance to talk. She and her social worker requested that our side of the family handle this.”

“John Jr. was my uncle; Mary is my mother, and as you can imagine, we are very anxious to speak with you. I am a school teacher, but believe it or not, my students know a little about my family history so if the phone rings in the middle of class I will stop what we are doing and answer it.”

I called her back right away; she was with her 8th grade class, her excitement palatable as she relayed a family history that differed somewhat from Philippo’s.

According to Mary, John Sr. returned to the US on military orders with the intention of bringing the rest of the family over as soon as he could. Meanwhile, Ariana had serious unstated issues that resulted in the two children scrounging food out of a public trash bin. The State Department got involved and the children were brought to the US and into John Sr.’s custody.

Unfortunately at the time, it wasn't uncommon for families to place their children in orphanages when they thought the government could take better care of them. Indeed, John Sr. suffered from chronic illness and eventually died. The children were moved from the orphanage into foster care.

She wrote after our conversation, “I can’t express how weird it feels to wonder about something for so long and all of a sudden be this close to finding some answers. Holy cow. I’m 43 years old, and I can tell you that I literally thought this day would never come.”

Lisa and Mary attempted to contact Philippo years ago via letter, but they never heard back. Meanwhile, Philippo had been searching relentlessly for his niece and nephew for four decades.

We quickly provided both sides of the family with the others’ contact information. Lisa contacted me soon afterwards.

“Thank you so much for the information. It was, quite possibly, one of the most surreal, unbelievable experiences of my life. To have something that’s been so difficult for so long all of a sudden be as easy as a phone call…wow…and we can never, ever thank you enough for everything you and the Red Cross did to make it happen. It will be interesting to piece together the family’s history from here. Philippo and his family may have a different version of the events than we do, but the important thing is that we now know that we don’t exist in a complete vacuum.”

*All names and places have been changed to honor confidentialit