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In a quest to find his birth parents, Northlander finds a sister

Joelee Luna (left) of Minneapolis and Sam Wilkes of Palo use smartphones to compare family trees at Perkins in Duluth on Saturday afternoon. Luna and Wilkes are half siblings and met for the first time ever at the restaurant. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com1 / 3
Joelee Luna (left) of Minneapolis and Sam Wilkes of Palo use smartphones to compare family trees at Perkins in Duluth Saturday afternoon. Luna and Wilkes are half siblings and met for the first time ever at the restaurant. Sitting next to Luna is her boyfriend Patrick Julien and sitting next to Sam is his wife Beth Wilkes. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com2 / 3
Sam Wilkes (right) of Palo hugs his half sister Joelee Luna of Minneapolis as he meets her in-person for the first time ever at Perkins in Duluth on Saturday afternoon. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com3 / 3

Sam Wilkes was adopted in 1951 as an infant. He's known for a while he was adopted, but once he retired, he began his quest to find his birth parents.

What he ended up finding was much more than he ever expected.

It was like any other February day in Duluth on Saturday. It was cold outside with snow piled high from a recent storm. But it was anything but an ordinary day for Wilkes, 67, of Palo, Minn. He had traveled south to Duluth to meet his half sister, for the first time. Her name is Joelee Luna.

And where do you meet your long lost half sibling you never knew you had? Well at a restaurant that advertises itself as a place for families — Perkins Restaurant and Bakery outside the Miller Hill Mall.

On Saturday afternoon, Wilkes waited nervously with his wife in the lobby for Luna, 45, of Minneapolis, to show up. Then it happened. Luna walked through the door, and when their eyes met they just knew.

"I knew you'd be good looking," Wilkes joked to Luna.

They embraced each other in a big hug.

"So now what?" Luna said laughing nervously.

Joelee Luna (left) of Minneapolis and Sam Wilkes of Palo embrace Saturday. Clint Austin / News TribuneLuna had brought her boyfriend with her for support and after introductions were made and a few questions answered, the four of them were ushered into a private booth in the back of the restaurant. And as soon as they sat down, Luna and Wilkes immediately started comparing notes.

Wilkes had been working on his birth family tree for the past six years. He began his search with the Children's Home Society in Minneapolis, where he was adopted. Wilkes said the agency sent a packet to his birth mother, who filled it out with family history and sent it back to the agency, who in turn sent it to Wilkes.

"It was non-disclosure, meaning it had no names or addresses on there, just basic family history," he said. "It did have one clue, that my birth mother had finished her internship at (North Dakota State University) in Fargo for dietetics back in the 60's."

Wilkes said that clue eventually led to a dead end with no clues who his birth mother was. So

that's when he turned to DNA kits. Three of them to be exact: 23andMe, AncestryDNA and Family Tree DNA.

From those DNA tests he found distant cousins in California and his birth mother's siblings in Minnesota. He found out his birth mother was one of five siblings — three girls and two boys. Wilkes said he's been in contact with one of his aunts and his two uncles, one of which unfortunately died recently.

As for his birth mother, he knows where she is, has reached out to her, but Wilkes said she wants nothing to do with him.

"I was born out of wedlock," he said. "My birth mother was 16 years old when I was born."

Though Wilkes doesn't have a relationship with his birth mother, who lives in Las Vegas, he does have a relationship with her sister Ruby and Ruby's daughter Stacie. Wilkes said they talk at least once a week, but he still would like to meet his birth mother.

"I'm pretty positive person, I think, so I hope someday to have contact with her, but if not — oh well," Wilkes said. "I've found all my other relatives, so that's up to her. I think she's missing out, though."

Wilkes said his birth mother never had any other children, so he has no siblings on his maternal side.

After finding his family on his maternal side, Wilkes began to dive into the paternal side of his family. Wilkes had even less clues to go on when looking for his father, since his original birth certificate said nothing about who his father was. His biggest lead to finding his father is Luna.

Luna grew up with five half brothers, one older and four younger. Growing up, she was led to believe she and her older brother were full siblings. When she was 24 years old Luna's mother told her that wasn't true.

"She was like, 'Oh yeah, there's something I was going to tell you when you were grown up. Bill isn't your father. It was a different guy,'" Luna recounted. "She didn't remember his name or anything like that and wasn't really forthcoming about it."

Luna hasn't talked to her mother in 17 years.

Unlike Wilkes, Luna has only just begun looking for her birth father for a little over a month now.

"One of my kids got me (a DNA kit) for Christmas because I've been wanting to do it but never bought it," Luna said. "I've never known who my biological father was and so I was kind of hoping to get some kind of clue or find out who he is."

Three weeks after sending in the kit, Luna got her results and got a bigger clue than she could have ever imagined: Wilkes.

Both Luna and Wilkes are hoping to have a relationship going forward and are both looking forward to seeing if they can find more family members and even figure out who their father is.

There is a 22 year difference between Wilkes and Luna, and as Wilkes put it, "our father was a bit of a rover" so they may even find more siblings, he joked.

"You never know," he said laughing. "That's a good possibility."

Adelle Whitefoot

Adelle Whitefoot is a Michigan native who moved to Minnesota in Sept. 2014 when she started as a reporter for the Lake County News-Chronicle. She graduated from Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Mich., in 2012 with a bachelor's in English writing and has been a professional photographer since 2011. Whitefoot is the night general assignments reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. 

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