Retired librarian helps people find missing family membersJan 18, 2021 02:40PM ● By Sarah Morton Taggart
Darlene Nethery (second from right) was adopted as a baby but reunited with her birth mother and extended family as an adult. (Photo courtesy Darlene Nethery)
By Sarah Morton Taggart | [email protected]
Having a child can change a person’s life in unexpected ways. For Darlene Nethery, having a daughter made her want to find her own birth parents.
“I was looking at her and thinking that I’m an only child,” Nethery said. “My husband at the time had one sister who was older. My daughter was going to grow up with no close relatives, was going to be alone when I pass.”
Nethery always knew she was adopted. She loved her parents deeply, but felt a strong need to connect with her biological family. Nethery was a librarian and no stranger to research, so she dove into the project when her daughter was a toddler.
Using information from the adoption records, Nethery learned the name of her birth mother, Julie Wooden-Lile, and that she lived in Oregon. After some creative digging, Nethery finally had a phone number.
“She knew immediately when I said, ‘Does this birthday mean anything to you,’” Nethery said, smiling and tearing up while describing this moment that took place more than 30 years ago. Wooden-Lile called each of her four children to the phone to talk to the half-sister they never knew they had.
“It was really welcoming,” Nethery said. “My one sister said, ‘I wish she had told us you were out there, I would have gone looking for you.’”
Wooden-Lile made a trip to Utah and met her oldest daughter face to face a few years later. In the meantime, her sister Theresia Cressal lived in Utah and was the first of Nethery’s biological family members to meet her. They agreed to lunch at the Midvale Mining Cafe.
“Her jaw dropped when she saw me,” Nethery said. “She told me I was the spitting image of Julie. In fact, when I met my mom she joked and said I only found her to see what I’ll look like when I’m 60.”
Nethery’s father was more difficult to track down because he had begun using a different name. A private investigator gave her access to databases and she finally found him in North Dakota.
“My birth dad, his family was a little upset,” Nethery said. “He has a son that was also born the same year I was. He just goes, ‘oh, those were wild times.’” At his family’s request, a DNA test confirmed that Roger Larson was indeed her biological father. He later attended Nethery’s second wedding.
Nethery has always loved horses and animals, an interest that her adopted family supported but didn’t relate to. It turned out that Wooden-Lile also loved animals. She raised horses and was an accomplished sled dog racer.
“It fills in a piece of the puzzle,” Nethery said. “People with biological parents don’t know how it is. I told my parents I was searching and they said they were OK with it. But when I found my birth mom, my mom went to pieces. My dad was great. He met my birth mom. They sat across from each other and he thanked her. But when I found my birth dad I just didn’t tell them. I kind of had two separate lives.”
Wooden-Lile died in 2006 from injuries sustained during a car accident and Larson passed away in November 2020.
After finding her own birth parents in the early 1990s, Nethery began helping others find theirs.
“Back then all you got at that time was non-identifying information from the adoption agency,” Nethery said. “One time I helped someone who’s birth mom (had been) in nursing school at the University of Utah. So I went and flipped through record books at the nursing school. Records were more open back then. Now they’re pretty much locked up.”
Nethery, who lives in West Jordan, spent many years as manager of the West Jordan Library.
“When you’re a librarian it’s fun just finding things,” Nethery said. “People would leave the library, and I would still be looking for the answer to their question. I was going to find it whether they cared or not.”
Nethery retired in May 2020 and has been able to devote more time to her hobby.
“I knew I didn’t just want to lay around the house,” Nethery said. “I stumbled across Volunteer Search Angels and it sounded like what I wanted. They’re a not-for-profit, and it’s just a way to connect with people, which I like to do.”
Volunteer Search Angels is a nonprofit organization based in Pennsylvania with hundreds of individuals working during their spare time to help others track down family members. Volunteer researchers come from a variety of professions, and many were adopted. They are not paid, but work at their own pace and decide which cases to work on. The organization is unusual in that it takes on cases for free, while private companies often charge a minimum of hundreds of dollars for a similar service.
When Nethery first learned to track down biological parents, the best strategy was to focus on their identity. “Now you focus on the DNA of the family and circle in from the outside,” Nethery said. “You find the names of possible family members and figure out how they’re related based on age.”
Before taking on cases, Nethery needed to learn more about DNA and how it can be used to determine relationships.
“Gradually, I got to know the other angels, and one of them took me under their wing,” Nethery said. “I understood DNA, but not sure about the best way to go about it. They gave me hints and tricks.”
Nethery has completed an average of one case per month, including one client in Midvale. Heather Lawrence knew that one of her grandmothers was adopted and wanted to learn more about that side of the family.
“I did Heather’s tree, then flipped back to mine and noticed a common person four or five generations back,” Nethery said. “I called her up and said, ‘Hi, cousin.’”
Nethery hopes to build a family tree for her adopted family as well, but hasn’t been able to get very far. Both her adopted parents have also passed away and she regrets not asking them more questions. Conversely, she’s been able to trace her husband’s ancestors back to Norse Vikings.
For anyone hoping to complete their own family tree, Nethery recommends mapping their DNA first. Of the services available, she prefers ancestry.com because it makes it easier to find connections, but it helps to use more than one company. The next step is to sign up with Volunteer Search Angels. Nethery also recommends writing down any information you have about the missing family member, even tiny details or rumors. “It might be that little clue that gets us to the right answer,” Nethery said.
When a person goes searching for missing family members, they never know what they’re going to find. One friend lived in Hawaii and had tracked her birth mother to Utah, so asked Nethery for help with finding her. The mother had mental health and substance abuse issues and was homeless.
“That’s the hard part about finding,” Nethery said. “You don’t know who you’re finding and how you’re going to be received. I’ve come across situations where the birth parents were OK with it but there are also ones who want nothing to do with it.”
Nethery knows she’s at the lucky end of that spectrum. “I went from being an only child to having eight half brothers and sisters. You can’t have too many people to love you.”
April Dineen, the daughter that inspired Nethery’s search, still stays in touch with her extended family and said it was wonderful having her biological grandparents in her life. “They both touched my life in different ways,” said Dineen. “Both taught me to live a little more carefree and enjoy every moment of this crazy life.”