After 57 years, Northland siblings separated as children reunitedThe questions were always there. When Marty and Dennis Paavola were growing up in Duluth, and John Biondich and Diane Peterson were doing the same on the Iron Range, the two groups of siblings wondered about each other.
By: Janna Goerdt, Duluth News Tribune
GILBERT — The questions were always there.
When Marty and Dennis Paavola were growing up in Duluth, and John Biondich and Diane Peterson were doing the same on the Iron Range, the two groups of siblings wondered about each other.
Earlier removed from a troubled home, Marty and Dennis had been adopted by one family in 1957, and John and — eventually — Diane were adopted not long afterward by another family. Both sibling groups knew the other existed, but they didn’t know their names or where they lived.
But as they grew up and grew into adults, they had the same questions. Are they OK? Are they still alive? What are they doing? And, most insistently, where are they?
Today, 57 years after they were split apart, they are frequently around each other’s kitchen tables.
“We feel like a family, like it hasn’t been 57 years,” Peterson said recently.
“It’s been wonderful,” Biondich added.
But the reunion was a long time coming, and it came about almost by chance.
Marty and Dennis Paavola had long talked about finding their siblings. They had been raised by a loving family in Duluth, but they wondered about their younger brother and the baby that Marty vaguely remembered from their biological parents’ home. While the brothers were at their hunting shack one year, a friend remarked that he knew someone who looked just like Dennis, Paavola said.
Turns out, Paavola’s wife, Jan, graduated just a year after Biondich from Gilbert Senior High School. And whenever Marty and Jan would visit their in-laws in Gilbert, Paavola could have walked to his brother’s and sister’s homes. But no one knew that yet, because they had no access to their birth certificates or adoption records.
That’s a common stumbling block for families looking to reunite, said Penelope Needham of Eden Prairie, Minn. Needham, who worked with a search agency to locate her own biological siblings, volunteers with the Minnesota Coalition for Adoption Reform.
The grass-roots organization has been trying for nearly 20 years to allow people adopted in Minnesota to have full access to their own birth certificates, Needham said. Currently, the laws governing which adoptees can see their birth certificates — and when — are “very cobbled together,” Needham said.
For example, if an adoptee was born after 1980, and their biological parents signed paperwork saying their adult child could access their birth certificate, and the adult child formally requests that document from the state, they can have it, Needham said. Adoptees born before 1980 may or may not have access to that information, and there may be other roadblocks preventing families from reuniting.
When Peterson turned 18, in 1973, she was determined to find her two older brothers. By chance, she worked at a drive-in near Eveleth that was owned by a local judge, and Peterson asked him how she would go about unsealing her adoption records.
“He told me those records are sealed, and they wouldn’t be opened up in my lifetime,” Peterson said, and that crushed her hopes. She spent the next decades wondering, but thinking there was nothing she could do.
Today, people often turn to social media for help. Online adoption forums are filled with heartbreaking stories of siblings desperately searching for each other, or their parents, or parents searching for their biological children with just shreds of information to go on.
Someone might know their mother’s first name, or the town they were born in, or that their sister is three years older. Sometimes that is enough to launch a search, sometimes not.
Marty Paavola, who was 7 when he was adopted, remembered his original last name and his parents’ first names. After his recent retirement, and armed with those shreds of information and the idea that there was someone on the Iron Range who looked just like his brother Dennis, Paavola began searching in earnest in January.
As searches for long-lost siblings go, Paavola had remarkable success. It wasn’t long before friends and acquaintances passed on bits of information — and then, a startling discovery. After Paavola discovered that the John Biondich who looked so much like Dennis Paavola might have lived in Gilbert, Paavola opened his wife’s 1969 yearbook, looked at John Biondich’s senior photo, and was stunned. It looked just like Marty Paavola’s own senior photo, down to the way the two combed their hair.
It wasn’t long before Paavola found a phone number for Biondich, and this spring, Biondich got a surprising phone call. The fellow from Duluth wanted to know three things — what was Biondich’s biological last name, from where had he been adopted and what were his biological parents’ names? All three were a perfect match, and Paavola knew he had found his brother.
He didn’t know, however, that he had also found his sister. Peterson and Biondich have stayed close all these years, and soon enough, Biondich made his own phone call, this time just across Gilbert.
“Our brother found us,” Biondich told his sister. Suddenly, they were a family again.
Today, the story still gives Peterson goosebumps. The three siblings had a joyous reunion at Paavola’s home this spring and have spent plenty of time together since. When John and Marty talk on the phone, “they sound just like two old ladies,” their sister said. “They can kibbitz forever.”
“We love each other so much,” Paavola said. “And vice versa,” Biondich added.
Sometimes adoptive siblings fear what they might find if they locate the rest of their family, Needham said. But in her experience, the reunions are often filled with joy and offer a sense of completion and fulfillment. Needham said the Minnesota Coalition for Adoption Reform will continue to push for more open access to birth certificates in the hope of having more such reunions.
And until then, Paavola and his siblings have a message for those still searching.
“Don’t give up hope,” he said. “Never give up hope.”