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Sisters reunite after 18 years
Eighteen years ago in the small town of Pu San in South Korea, a poor family said goodbye to their 7-year-old daughter who was heading to the United States for cleft palate surgery and, they hoped, for a better life than they could provide for her.
At the time, little Kim Mi-eun didn’t know she would never see either of her natural parents again. She didn’t know that the same program that sent her, called Healing the Children, would later send her younger sister, Kim Mi-hyang, to the states as well for heart surgery. And she certainly didn’t know that she and her sister would lose contact, only to be reunited for the first time on Aug. 22, 2010, here on Mercer Island.
“It was a miracle; we didn’t know if she was alive or dead,” said Kim Mi-eun, who now goes by Kimi Mi-eun Salerno, of her sister.
Kimi first arrived in the United States in 1991 and was taken in by Valerie Giesbrecht of Mercer Island during her surgery, she said.
At the time, she spoke no English, but her cheerful demeanor quickly won her a place in the hearts of the community, according to the Salerno family, which went to the same church as Kimi and the Giesbrechts. The Salernos ended up adopting Kimi in addition to their two natural children when they discovered that her parents were hoping she would be taken in by a family in the United States.
“We got to know Kimi, and we kind of fell in love with her, and it just seemed like the natural thing to do,” said Charlie Salerno, Kimi’s adoptive father. “She expanded our world.”
Meanwhile, Healing the Children, an organization that sends children to affluent countries to receive medical treatments unavailable to them at home, sent Kimi’s sister, who now goes by the name Kimmy Wood, to Connecticut for surgery.
While she was there, Kimmy said, she lost contact with her biological parents and was almost sent back to Korea to an orphanage, but in 1993 the Wood family of Georgia decided to take her in on top of the eight children they had already, four of whom they had adopted before Kimmy.
“It was amazing how fast I forgot everything about Korea,” said Kimmy. “I learned English really fast, and I lost everything from the past.”
Now that they’ve been reunited, Kimi and Kimmy said they have had a chance to talk about Korea, and Kimmy said she has been able to read letters that her biological parents sent to her sister asking that she try to find Kimmy so they could regain contact with her.
“We talked about what we remember from Korea,” said Kimi. “We talked about boyfriends and elementary school and siblings.”
The two girls have the same name, they said, because in Korean names, the family name comes first, followed by a person’s given name. When they were adopted, both girls chose to retain their Korean family names and take on the last names of their adoptive families as well.
Kristin Salerno, Kimi’s adoptive mother, said she was delighted when Kimmy’s mother, who had discovered their whereabouts through Healing the Children, called for the first time because the Salernos had been trying to connect with Kimi’s biological family for years.
“When I got the telephone call from Kimmy Wood’s mom, I can’t explain the joy,” Kristin Salerno said. “If we didn’t find her, I felt like it would have been a hole in our lives.”
Kimi said she regained contact with her biological parents two years ago after losing touch with them for much of her childhood. Healing the Children staff called her, she said, to tell her they had discovered that her Korean father had died.
At that point, Kimi began writing letters to her mother and older sister in Korea, and she and the Salernos planned a trip there.
Though her biological mother also died before Kimi left for Korea, she said during the time she spent there, she met with her older sister, who was engaged to be married, and her younger brother, who was in the army.
She also had the opportunity to reflect on what her life would have been like had she not been adopted by a Mercer Island family.
“It would not have been a good life; my family was not well-off,” she said. “I really have to thank the people who helped me get here.”
Kimmy said she has never returned to Korea, but she and Kimi are thinking of planning a trip there together.
In the states, Kimi went through the Mercer Island school system, and Kimmy went to school in Georgia. Later, both girls went to college and graduated recently, Kimi with a degree in environmental science and Kimmy with one in art education.
In 1992, before she was adopted, the Reporter ran a story on Kimi, who was undergoing surgery and orthodontic work and living with the Giesbrecht family on the Island.
Valerie Giesbrecht said she and Kerry Sussex decided to take in a foster child through Healing the Children together when a board member from the organization suggested it at Mercer Island Presbyterian Church.
At first, Giesbrecht said, she worried that there was not enough room in her house for an additional child because she had two daughters already, but she said it was easier than she expected to take Kimi into their lives.
“Kimi wanted nothing more than to put on plastic roller skates and cruise around the cars in the garage; she would be in there for hours going around and around,” said Giesbrecht. “Bananas and roller skates — that’s all she wanted the first few weeks.”
Giesbrecht said she wished Sussex could have been at Kimi and Kimmy’s reunion because taking in a child through Healing the Children was one way among many that she had touched the lives of others. Sussex died of ovarian cancer on Aug. 5.
“Kerry loved people, and she tried to help in any way she could,” said Giesbrecht. “Being a foster parent was just one more example of her generous spirit.”
Like Giesbrecht, the Salernos said they were grateful that Kimi had come unexpectedly into their family and that she and her sister eventually found each other after such a long separation.
“In today’s world where there’s not much good news, this really is a good news story,” said Charlie Salerno.