Community Corner

San Rafael Woman Reunited With Birth Mother After 50 Years

After five decades, Wendy Gallagher, who was adopted, reunited with her birth mother and extended family. Now she is sharing her story.

SAN RAFAEL, CA — Wendy Gallagher has a lot to be thankful for during the holiday season — and all year long.

After five decades, the San Rafael woman, who was adopted as a baby, reunited with her birth mother and extended family during the holidays, and now she is sharing her story.

"I have a family that raised me, and now I have a bonus family, too," said Gallagher, who has lived in San Rafael for 27 years.

Gallagher, 54, grew up in Marin County knowing that her parents adopted her as a newborn. She didn't know, however, that her birth mother lived just a few blocks away at the time.

Gallagher was born March 17, 1966. Dr. Clifford Raisbeck and Margaret "Marge" Raisbeck adopted their daughter in April 1966, when she was 3 weeks old.

"I was very fortunate to have a wonderful family and a wonderful place to grow up," Gallagher said.

Gallagher grew up with a loving family in a large home in Sausalito. Her eldest brother, who is 10 years older, was her parents' only biological child. The couple also adopted a boy in 1963 and another girl in 1967.

Her father had an orthopedics practice in San Francisco, while her mother worked as a "domestic engineer" taking care of the children and home.

"They were amazing," Gallagher said.

The family loved to celebrate. Gallagher fondly recalled birthday bashes and festive Fourth of July parties. They also loved to travel.

"We just did a lot of amazing things," she said.

After their mother's death in 1991, Gallagher's brother and sister reconnected with their birth families.

One day, her brother received a phone call from his half-sister, which led to his reunion with his birth mother and birth family.

Her sister visited her adoption agency, which had an active file. Her birth mother had been putting letters and pictures in the file for 25 years. She, too, reunited with her birth mother and birth family.

As for Gallagher — in addition to "being busy" and "feeling content" with her life — she was afraid.

"Some people find their birth families and they are deceased or they don't want anything to do with them," she said. "It can be hard to be rejected."

She had always been curious, however.

As a child, every year she wondered if she would receive a birthday card from her birth parents.

"But nothing came, and then I'd just keep going," she said.

Gallagher didn't actively search for answers until fall 2015. While attending one of her daughters' tennis practices, she talked with another parent about 23andMe, a genetic testing company.

Not long after, she decided to order a DNA kit.

"I didn't want to go to my grave not knowing where I came from," Gallagher said.

About a month after she submitted a sample of her saliva, Gallagher received an email that read, "You have relatives on your DNA account."

"I opened it up and I had hundreds of relatives," said Gallagher, who now has 1,500 relatives on 23andMe.

"It's amazing what you can find out with just a vial of spit," she said.

The company's online database provided the names of family members also registered with 23andMe.

Most were distant relatives, except for a first cousin named Mike. The two cousins shared nearly 16 percent of their DNA.

Gallagher messaged Mike and learned that he, too, was adopted. Unfortunately, he also didn't know anything about his birth parents.

Determined to find more information, Gallagher requested her adoption records from the Children's Home Society in San Francisco.

In April 2016, she received a seven-page packet.

"I was in another world," she recalled. "It was like a blueprint of me."

She learned her birth mother grew up in Kansas and had one sister. She was 5 feet, 1 inch tall and weighed 110 pounds at the time. She had brown hair and brown eyes.

"It was so descriptive and so amazing," Gallagher said. "It was everything about her and her life."

It was everything but her name. Gallagher's original birth certificate with her birth parents' names was sealed by the state.

The information, however, helped Gallagher and her cousin determine their mothers were sisters, as she had learned her birth father had no siblings.

"Wow, this is like a spy novel," Gallagher remembered Mike said.

Gallagher, who works as a labor and delivery nurse in San Francisco, joked that if she wasn't a nurse, she would be a forensic scientist.

"I was just amazed that everything was right in front of me, except the name of the person," she said.

Her journey didn't end there.

After her research hit a dead end, she hired a genealogist in May 2016 to find her birth parents. The genealogist soon gave her a packet of information and a photo of her maternal grandmother.

"It was like looking in the mirror," she said. "It was weird."

The genealogist found and contacted Gallagher's birth mother over the summer. Mary Lynn was excited to connect with her daughter, and the pair started communicating through email and Facebook. Gallagher learned she had a half-brother, Tim, and half-sister, Britt. They also started talking online.

Through the process, Mike also reunited with his birth mother, Patsy, Mary Lynn's sister.

In November 2016, Gallagher flew to Houston, Texas, and finally met her birth mother, half-brother and half-sister in person. She also met her cousin and his birth mother.

"We spent three days together, just laughing and having a good time and sharing photos," she said.

Gallagher discovered she and her birth mother share the same mannerisms and dimples. They both also love to laugh and travel, enjoy puzzles, like white wine and don't drink coffee.

"It's neat being able to see people you resemble," she said.

They continued to build their relationship, and in December 2017, Mary Lynn and Britt as well as Britt's family traveled to San Rafael for Christmas. They met Gallagher's husband, Tom, and their daughters, Caeli and Brenna. They also met Gallagher's sister in Petaluma.

"That was really fun," she said.

Gallagher has since met Mary Lynn one other time for lunch in San Francisco.

Although the coronavirus pandemic is keeping the family apart this year, Gallagher is hopeful for more family reunions in the future.

"Hopefully, we'll get to see each other next year," she said.

In the meantime, they are staying in touch through email, text and Facebook. They also send birthday cards and Christmas gifts.

Gallagher encouraged anyone seeking their birth family to use genealogy websites and the services of a genealogist.

"It is possible — if you're really curious and want to know where you come from," she said.

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