Amy Damera had a few names but no answers about her family before adoption.
She worked to find her mother in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, the country’s second-most populous city. An old address on a 1991 letter led to a dead end.
But in just days last month, she not only met her mother but discovered her sister’s parallel life just minutes away.
“When I always envisioned finding a birth family, I just thought I’d find a mother, hopefully maybe a father,” said Damera, of Gainesville. “But I never thought I would find all the siblings, so that’s what was the big shocker — to find out they were so close, close in age as well.”
Damera and sister Katalina Jones connected in person April 22 after discovering each other in a Facebook conversation with Romanian family. Damera, Jones and another sister, Sarah Hanna, all grew up in North Georgia after their adoptions in the 1990s.
Damera and Hanna were 6 months and 18 months old, respectively, when adopted. Their adoptive parents told them early on they were sisters.
Jones, however, was 12 when she arrived in the United States in November 1997. She spent 11 years shuffled between three different orphanages.
“Back then, it wasn’t that good for her,” Jones said of her mother’s decision to give up her parental rights. “Looking at it this way, she put us in orphanages for better opportunities and a better life.”
Damera’s adoptive parents, Jerry and Jeannie Penland, heard a similar story about a biological mother who “didn’t have the money to raise” Damera.
Jones had few complaints of her life in the orphanage. She colored, played outside and had her own bicycle, like other children. She lived in the same orphanage with her brother, though she didn’t accept it at first.
“It was hard for me to believe he was my brother, though, for a long time, because he didn’t look like me,” Jones said.
But to Jones, the 100 or so children living in the orphanage were her brothers and sisters. Her adoptive parents would come there with church missionaries, bringing clothes, shoes and goody bags for the children.
Unlike other orphanages in surrounding cities, Jones’ home allowed the Americans’ gifts.
“Some orphanages … would take the stuff and go sell it on the street instead of giving it to the girls, but our lady was different,” Jones said.
After a lengthy adoption process, Jones landed stateside with a green card.
“They took me into a room with my dad, and they had to have a lot of proof to let me into the United States,” Jones said of her arrival in the U.S. airport.
A special connection
Hanna’s and Damera’s adoptive parents became friends during the Romanian adoption process.
“My parents sat me down and told me that I was very special and that I had a unique situation where I had a different mother and father ... and had another sister,” Hanna said of a conversation she had with them when she was about 8.
Hanna, who grew up in Athens with a sister four years older, enjoyed being in the middle and having an extended family. The Romanian sisters attended each other’s birthdays, spent long weekends together and at one point a whole summer.
“It was nice to have another sister that I knew was close in age to me, so I think that was something that I enjoyed that we’re only a year apart,” Hanna said.
Hanna has since moved to Plano, Texas, but the two still keep in touch.
They were inspired to search for their birth mother after Damera watched “Lion,” a 2016 film about an Indian man on a journey to reunite with his family.
When the protagonist saw his mother again and immediately embraced, Damera was touched and wondered what it would be like to see her mother.
Would she have a connection? Would she be recognized?
Damera and Hanna searched through all of their things related to Romania for clues. Damera’s husband, Jared, found an online group dedicated to reuniting Romanian children with their families.
Hanna’s adoptive parents wrote letters to the biological mother for a few years until communication suddenly stopped for unknown reasons.
Hanna rifled through a cardboard container with “Romania” written all over it, which held her legal documents, Polaroid photos and images on slides of Cluj architecture.
“I didn’t realize that I had a picture of our birth mom in one of our letters,” Hanna said.
Damera had a list of names on her adoption paperwork, but they were of sisters who have since changed names through marriage.
A letter to Hanna had a man’s name, Lucian, who was contacted through the Facebook group.
Lucian, the women’s brother, chatted on Facebook with Jones, Damera and Hanna with the help of translators.
“During the first part of the conversation, we were just so overwhelmed,” Damera said. “We were just crying and talking to these people. It’s like I found my family, but I don’t know what to say.”
Through these conversations, Jones, Damera and Hanna learned how close they truly were.
Just minutes away
The distance between Dawsonville and Cleveland highways in Gainesville separated Jones and Damera. The list of close encounters and coincidences grow as the two learn more about each other.
Jones, who is five years older, attended North Hall High School, where Damera’s father, Jerry Penland, taught in the special education department.
“I remember some teachers stopping me, and I guess her dad was with them, and they were like, ‘Hey, doesn’t she look like your daughter?’” Jones recalled.
Damera’s adoption by the Penlands was featured twice in The Times in 1991.
Damera and Jones shared mutual friends, who at times asked Jones if she had a twin.
Jones also attended the same church as Damera’s future husband.
“I know I’ve seen her before,” Damera said. “I just don’t know where, and my husband says the same thing.”
Jones was nervous driving to meet Damera for a late lunch April 22 at El Maguey in Gainesville.
The meal turned into a four-hour discovery of their lives roughly 20 minutes apart.
“If we had only known, we would have just found that so awesome, that we could be the three sisters right there,” Hanna said. “But knowing that now, I’m super happy because she is close to Amy and she can now go and see her and start forming a relationship.”
Finding a stateside sister came with the discovery of a handful of other siblings and seeing their mother via video chat for the first time in decades.
There are eight children total in the family, the sisters said. Lucian and sister Ioana live in Romania, the latter three hours away in Sibiu. Another sister, Alina, lives in the Netherlands, but they haven’t found the other two siblings.
On the video chat, the mother of eight was beaming. Damera took the phone to her two kids so they could meet their grandmother.
“She was blowing them kisses and acting like any grandparent would,” she said. “She was so overjoyed by seeing that we lived the life that she wanted for us.”
Hanna could see a lot of herself in her mother’s face, finally piecing together where she gets the bone structure, eyes and chin she sees in the mirror.
“I was just kind of surprised how much I look like her,” she said.
Nervous and overwhelmed, Damera didn’t know what to ask but a couple of “small, crazy questions.”
Her mother’s favorite color? Blue, like the hue of Hanna’s bridesmaid dress at Damera’s wedding.
Her mother’s favorite pizza? Hawaiian, the same as Jones and Damera.
Their mother is an excellent cook, which is where the similarities end for Hanna.
The trio of sisters are now planning a trip to Romania to reconnect, which they hope will include all of the siblings. The women have a Gofundme page to raise funds for the trip.
After having her own kids, Jones obtained U.S. citizenship two years ago so she could travel on an American passport.
“You can’t separate family by location or time,” Damera said.