BOURBONNAIS — Brothers Mark Meredith and Joel Turrell have traveled a very winding road thus far in their 30-some years.
It is the next 6,642 miles — the distance between Bourbonnais and Seoul, South Korea — that provide the final obstacle for Joel, 37, and Mark, 34, to finally being reunited with their birth mother, who lost custody of her 4-and-a-half-year-old and 18-month-old sons in about late 1987 or early 1988.
The boys have been on a journey since those early years of their lives when a divorce between their parents left them with their father, who eventually put them in an orphanage, but then allowed them to be adopted — like thousands of other South Korean children in those years — by families in the United States.
While the men made it clear they have no issues with their adoptive parents — Doug and Debbie Turrell of Ganeer Township for Joel, and Milford and Kay Meredith of rural Kankakee for Mark — there was always that empty feeling and that wonder of what led them to be let go by their biological parents.
That all changed, however, when a letter in an envelope from the Post Adoption Service Center of the Eastern Social Welfare Society in Seoul arrived at Mark’s home in late January.
At first, confused by the envelope, and then somewhat apprehensive to open it, Mark found a letter dated Jan. 7, 2020.
‘GREETINGS FROM KOREA’
“To Whom It May Concern,” it began. “Greetings from Korea!”
The letter stated the agency was writing to Mark on behalf of a birth mother — in this case, 58-year-old Sang Suk Lee — who was seeking help from the ESWS in finding her sons. The letter noted the agency was basically taking somewhat of a shot in the dark.
“I am hoping this letter is reaching out to the family of Meredith. From the records that we kept about the adoptee and the adoptive parents, we have found this updated address and, if you receive this letter, please contact us via email.
“... Even though you may not be the person we are looking for, please give us any response ... and we deeply appreciate your time.”
The ESWS could not have had any idea what the letter could have meant to the young men, who themselves had not known of each other for many years even though they both resided within Kankakee County for nearly their entire lives.
Joel and Mark came to the U.S. together and were placed initially with the same family — the Merediths. However, Mark had some early health issues and keeping them together became a challenge.
Joel was then adopted by the Turrells.
BROTHERS FIND EACH OTHER
As a result, they lost contact with one another for many years. They were able to reconnect in 2001 when Joel was 18 and Mark was 15.
Joel was aware that Mark’s parents operated a sewing shop in Bradley. He drove past the location several times before working up the courage to open the door.
He finally stopped his car and walked in. He introduced himself and said he was looking for Mark, his brother. Mark was not there, but his parents telephoned him and said he had a visitor. Mark arrived by bicycle several minutes later and after an awkward first meeting, the two became best friends.
“We became best friends before we became brothers,” Mark said. “We’ve been best friends ever since that day.”
Once they entered adulthood they have shared apartments. Even when they didn’t live together, they lived nearby. They once lived in connected duplex units in Bourbonnais.
‘WHERE DO I COME FROM?’
Through the phone conversations and emails, the brothers finally made connections with not only their mother, but relatives in Korea. The story they had been told basically their entire lives in which their mother not wanting them was simply incorrect.
Up until the telephone conversations and electronic exchanges, the only thing the men knew of their mother was a 3-inch-by-5-inch photograph they had in which they were sitting with their mother in a posed picture.
They have recently been flooded with pictures from her and family members of when they were young. They also learned their given names: Joel was named Yeong Jo Kim; Mark was named Hwan Jo Kim. They plan to keep their American names.
It is almost as if a new segment of their life has been unlocked. They expect to learn volumes more about their lives and that of their mom.
“I always wanted to know ‘Where do I come from? Who am I? Why did this happen to me?’ Those questions were always in the back of my mind,” Mark said. “And the only document I had to fall back on was this one picture.”
Since reuniting through phone conversations with their birth mother they have learned she has worked for years trying to find them.
“This was a huge part of our lives that was missing from us,” Mark said. He also noted these life-changing events since the letter showed up in his mailbox have helped clear his mind.
He said there were abandonment issues they had to process during their lives. After all, they had been told they were not wanted by their birth parents.
But that was simply not true. While knowing basically nothing regarding their father, they have come to know their mother never wanted them out of her life.
“Finding her has helped make me whole,” Mark said. “I didn’t have a start to my story and now I do. ... You grow up starting life with someone who didn’t want you. That’s what we always thought. That gives you an abandonment mentality.
“I’ve tried not to make that my life. Find our mother gives us that warm and fuzzy feeling. That original story wasn’t right. There are people over there [South Korea] who care greatly about us,” he said. “It changes your perspective on life a little bit — more than a little bit.”