When the O’Rourkes enlisted the help of The Salvation Army’s Family Tracing Service to help answer some long-standing questions, they got more than they could ever wish for—a whole ‘new’ family in their lives.
Jeremy O’Rourke, 37, has never had a father in his life. His mother Karen knew who Jeremy’s father was—a helicopter pilot on military deployment in New Zealand from the US, whom she’d had an encounter with almost 40 years ago— but lost contact with him when he returned to the States.
Growing up without a father, Jeremy says he fielded constant questions from friends about the absent parent. He only knew what little the man had told his mother during the time they had spent together, and that his middle name— Richard—was also his father’s first name.
‘Kids can be mean to a child with no dad, but I guess I developed a thick skin about it, I wasn’t resentful as I didn’t really know what I was missing out on not having a father.’
Karen had searched for Richard many years ago, firstly to inform him that he was a father and also to establish communication between him and his son. But the lack of a surname and other information hindered her progress, and eventually a frustrated Karen gave up hope.
Eight years ago, Karen purchased a laptop which renewed her interested in the search. Using a host of online tools, she discovered more details about Richard, alongside some shocking news—he had died in 1988 at age 33.
Karen was devastated. ‘When I told Jeremy he’d died, he felt sad, but he didn’t want me to investigate any further.’
She continued to keep Jeremy as the centre of her universe as she had always done, feeling it important to make up for Richard’s absence by filling the role of both parents in his life.
The search was put on hold again until last year, when Karen was watching an episode of ‘Without a Trace’, which focusses on people being reunited with long-lost family, and her interest was again renewed. Jeremy’s attitude had also changed over the years, especially after seeing a photo of his father in the military.
‘I wanted to better understand my background by finding out more about him, and to see if I had any aunts or uncles.’
Karen did some research online and discovered that The Salvation Army offered a service called Family Tracing, which helps locate people who have become separated or estranged from their family. Family Tracing’s Major Brenda Ennever says it was an unusual case for them, and not just because of the little information that was available.
‘It’s quite rare for us to take on cases where we already know the person in question is deceased, but we’re committed to connecting people together and this story really tugged on our heartstrings.’
Brenda began her intense work, using search techniques to trace any history of Richard Chaney online. After a few weeks she struck gold, discovering a family tree containing Richard Chaney that had been created earlier that year on Ancestry.com. The tree contained a photo of Richard—the same photo Karen had given her at the start of the search.
Brenda made contact with the person who created the family tree, and had another lucky break—the creator, Katie, was in fact Richard’s daughter. Brenda says that Katie was curious about who was searching for her deceased father.
‘I was hesitant to tell Katie as I knew it would come as a huge shock to her. With Jeremy and Karen’s approval, I told her that her father had a brief encounter with someone in New Zealand in 1980 and a result of that encounter was a son Jeremy, her half-brother.’
As expected, Katie was both surprised and excited. She told Brenda that she lived in Alabama and she had two other sisters, giving Jeremy three newly discovered half-sisters living half a world away.
Jeremy was informed of the good news and an hour later they had connected on Facebook, first the two of them, then more and more family as Katie told her siblings and relatives about him. Jeremy described the first month of contact as ‘overwhelming and incredible’.
‘I remember being inundated with over 40 friend requests from my new family in the US, and seeing all these messages filled with questions and happiness. It was amazing.’
The family on both sides of the world also marvelled at how similar Jeremy and Richard looked, as photos were shared back and forth. There was also a strong feeling of sadness from the US-based relatives in finding out that Jeremy had spent his life not knowing his father.
Fast-forward five months and Jeremy and Karen were flying to the United States to meet the extended Chaney family in person, as part of celebrating Jeremy’s 37th birthday. As they landed at the airport in Memphis, Tennessee, they were greeted by ‘a very vocal’ welcoming party armed with flowers and balloons.
The following week was a whirlwind of introductions and socialising, as Jeremy was introduced to dozens of new relatives, and heard stories about his father growing up. Jeremy says he felt an instant connection. ‘It felt like we’d all known each other forever.’
At the event, his new family presented him with a heart-warming birthday gift; his father’s bomber jacket from his military days. He was also given an album—in the style of ‘This is your Life’—containing photos of Richard growing up.
In return, Jeremy showed them a short film he’d put together, showing what his life was like in New Zealand and detailing local quirks such as washing lines, pineapple lumps and peanut slabs.
Today, the bond between Jeremy and his new family is stronger than ever. He is in regular contact with his half-sisters and other US-based relatives, while Karen Skypes the grandparents every weekend. While Karen jokes that ‘our Christmas and birthday card list has grown substantially’, Jeremy is more philosophical about the changes in his life.
‘I never grew up with siblings, and now that I have them it’s great and I would do anything for them. It’s also been very cool to become an uncle overnight, something I never thought I’d be.’
Jeremy is grateful to The Salvation Army for the role they played to reuniting him with a family he never knew he had.
‘I thank them because in my eyes, it’s The Salvation Army and their influence and reach, their ability to get access to records that civilians couldn’t, that resulted in us all finding each other.’
Karen says their world changed forever on 8th May 2017, when Brenda and the Army gave them the good news.
‘I always thought the Sallies did good work in the community and we had used their family stores in the past, but they do so many other great things to help people. We’re so thankful for Brenda’s help in bringing us together.’
This story appeared in the Autumn 2018 edition of our 'Together' newsletter. You can download and read this newsletter here.