-- A very special and long-overdue family reunion is taking place this week in the Kansas City area.
Two sisters, Starla Medlock and Jeannie Toomey, reunited with their mother for the first time in four decades on Tuesday, embracing each other as tears streamed down their faces.
“It felt like time stood still. It just stopped,” Starla, 43, told ABC News of the moment she laid eyes on her mom at the Kansas City International Airport.
“I felt like that piece in my heart was just filling up. It was no longer a void there,” her younger sister, Jeannie, 42, added.
The women were separated from their mother, Lani Szarmach, when they were just 1 and 2 years old.
“Our dad signed up to the Air Force when he was 18 and went to Vietnam,” Jeannie explained. “Then he met our mom in Thailand and they got married. They went to Columbus, Ohio, in 1973 where Starla was born. Then dad got stationed in England when she was pregnant with me. I was born there, and that’s where they got divorced. And that’s where she remained as far as we knew. Then we came back to the states when he got stationed stateside.”
Lani’s long separation from her daughters happened as a result of the divorce, when the girls’ father got full custody and moved them to the United States.
“We asked our dad a lot about our mom, and he never spoke ill of our mom to us,” Starla recalled of their father, who died six years ago. “He just said that she couldn’t speak English because she’s full-blooded Thai, and he said she thought since we were American and he was in the military, he could take better care of us and provide us a better life than she could.”
But Starla and Jeannie never stopped yearning to find their long-lost mother, and would ask their father for information to help them in their search.
“When I sit back and I think of everything, I think he just tried to make it look like he helped,” Jeannie said of her dad’s efforts. “He was trying to protect us, or he was scared he was going to lose his baby girls. They always say there are three sides to the story. His side, her side and the truth.”
After years of searching databases and trying to locate birth records to no avail, the sisters decided to stop their searching, accepting that they had too little information to locate their mother.
“We had to close that chapter,” said Starla. “We thought, ‘We can’t keep doing this anymore. We can’t keep doing this to ourselves. We have to accept that we’ll probably never meet her. It was a chapter in our life that was never going to be finished.”
On Dec. 30, however, Starla got an unexpected message on Facebook.
“I open up my Facebook and look at message requests,” said Starla. “There’s a picture I see of this family, and I see mine and Jeannie’s baby picture. I’m laying in bed and my husband’s laying next to me and I’m going, ‘Oh my God.’ It started out saying, ‘This is not a prank,’ and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God.’”
The message was from Lani’s current husband, Mark Szarmach, who lives with Lani in Pueblo, Colorado.
Starla and Mark swapped numbers, wanting to confirm facts with each other to ensure this was, indeed, the right connection.
“Lani wanted to find them but she didn’t know how to and because she had such limited information there weren’t any diligent searches,” Mark said of his wife. “But she’s often cried herself to sleep and talked about her daughters and how she has to find them someday. That night she asked me to help her find them, and we jotted down the information we had. Their last name was Thompson, which is a very common name. She knew he [the girls’ father] was in the Air Force and she thinks they came to the U.S. in 1972. It was very vague information. She knew Starla was born in Columbus, Ohio, and Jeannie was born in the hospital in England.”
Mark said it was difficult to search for the daughters because his wife’s accent is so thick. At first he thought Starla’s name was Stella, and Jeannie’s name was Jenny. He continued searching all of the names together, along with their father, John Thompson, and eventually found John’s obituary.
“It only took about three hours,” he said.
When Mark located Jeannie on Facebook, he saw something extraordinary in her photos that sealed the deal for him.
“I opened up an album and that baby picture popped up. I was in shock,” he recalled of finding the same exact baby photo of the girls that his wife has been carrying in her wallet for the past 42 years. “I came running out of the bedroom and said, ‘Honey you’ve got to come see this.’ I showed her that picture and she just started bawling.”
The happy family video chatted together for the first time on New Year’s Eve. Mark and Lani flew to Kansas City on Tuesday to meet their newfound daughters in person.
“I’m totally beside myself. I have my whole new family here,” said Jeannie.
“One thing I have always lived by is the quote, ‘With God all things are possible,’” Starla added. “I believe that without God this wouldn’t have been possible. In three hours Mark found us when all he had was a picture.”
Lani said she is “really happy” to finally reconnect with her daughters, and is planning to cook enough for food for them to make up for all the meals they lost.
“We’re going shopping for making Thai food,” she said. “We’re going to go to the Asian store to look for all kinds of food and I’m going to cook for them. I’ve waited so long to cook for them.”
And for anyone out there in a similar situation, Jeannie has this bit of advice.
“Miracles do happen. They truly do happen,” she remarked. “Don’t give up hope. It may not happen right away, but it will happen and we are proof.”