By Jennifer Kotila
HOWARD LAKE, MN Howard Lake’s Burau brothers, Chad, Troy, and Ross, received a long-anticipated gift over the holidays this year. The men finally got to meet their older biological sister, Andrea Carter, who had been given up for adoption when she was born, 39 years ago.
Andrea’s adoptive mother, Ellen Hanson, was not surprised to find out about Andrea’s brothers, she said, and had always told her friends that Andrea more than likely had full-blood siblings.
This is because in the letter Andrea’s biological mother, Sandi Diers, had written to her newborn baby, she had stated that although they were young at the time, she and Andrea’s biological father, Dale Burau, planned to marry after high school.
The search for Carter had been a long time coming, with starts and stops along the way, and plenty of hopes and fears to be overcome.
But, this time around, Dale, Sandi, and especially their boys, were determined to follow through and find the baby that had been given up nearly 37 years earlier.
In the end, all involved in the experience said they really felt God’s hand at work throughout Andrea’s life and the family’s experience reuniting.
“I’m very spiritual, and I just believe there was a bigger picture the whole time,” Ellen said. “God’s love really encompassed everybody here.”
The unexpected baby
Sandi and Dale were starting their senior year of high school in 1971 when they found out Sandi was pregnant.
“I was more scared than I have ever been in my life,” Sandi said. “I knew I didn’t have any maternal instincts at the time.”
Neither Sandi nor Dale had any intention of keeping the baby. Times were different than they are now, and they wanted the best for their baby.
They thought a family that was more settled and ready for a baby could give their baby more than they would be able to, Dale said.
“In hindsight, it was by far the best decision, considering where she went,” Dale said. “She had more opportunities, and they were more established in wanting a child.”
At the time, there were not many resources for young unwed mothers, and Dale and Sandi’s families could not help them with the responsibilities of being young parents, Sandi said.
Both were also planning to continue their education after high school. Sandi was planning to attend St. Cloud Vocational School after graduating, and Dale was planning to attend Willmar State Junior College (now Ridgewater).
Sandi was able to stay in Howard Lake High School until about November 1971, after which she was sent to Minneapolis to a school for unwed mothers, she said.
When Andrea was born Jan. 29, 1972, both Sandi and Dale were able to hold her.
“I remember being in awe. She was a very precious, sweet little baby,” Sandi said. “But I did not have feelings of wanting to keep her, or thinking we had made the wrong decision.”
Although she knew the name would more than likely be changed, Sandi needed a name to think of the baby by, so she chose the name Kimberly Michelle.
“I thought about her a lot over weeks and months, with some tears,” Sandi said.
Sandi used Lutheran Social Services (LSS) as the agency to handle the adoption, and was able to request some of the characteristics she wanted in the adoptive family.
She requested that her baby would be the adoptive couple’s first child, they live in a small town, the adoptive mother would be a stay-at-home mom, and that they were of the Lutheran faith.
Sandi and Dale went on to graduate from Howard Lake High School that June, and then went on to school.
Sandi went to St. Cloud Vocational College for a year, then moved to Willmar and worked as a psychological technician while Dale finished school.
Dale started college at Willmar State Junior College, and finished his schooling at Mankato State University.
Although Sandi and Dale were married in October 1973, the marriage ended in 1990.
However, during their marriage, they had three boys; Chad, born in 1975; Troy, born in 1979; and Ross, born in 1981.
Each of the boys were told about their biological older sister who had been given up for adoption when they reached an appropriate age.
Sandi told Chad when he was about 13 years old.
Troy and Ross found out on the way home from Buffalo one day when they were about 14 or 15 years old. It was the baby’s birthday and Sandi was crying. The boys asked what was wrong, and she told them about their biological sister.
A welcome gift
Ellen and her husband, John, were high school sweethearts from Ellendale who had gotten married and wanted to start a family, but Ellen was unable to become pregnant.
The couple were members of the ELCA Lutheran Church, and Ellen’s uncle, a bishop for the church in southwest Minnesota, suggested they use LSS to adopt a baby.
That began a two-and-one-half year process to becoming parents, Ellen said. There were numerous interviews about personal and family biographies, and what the Hanson’s would like for their family.
While waiting for the opportunity to be parents, Ellen taught piano lessons and music at the school.
John had a degree in business administration and owned the grain elevator in Ellendale.
Each month, the Hansons received a report about where they were on the waiting list to become adoptive parents.
As the couple moved closer to the top of the waiting list, they decided it was time to get a crib.
Everything seemed to fall into place when Ellen received the phone call telling her to come pick up her new baby the same day the crib arrived.
It was Feb. 4, 1972 and Lutheran Social Services said the Hansons could pickup the baby girl the next day.
“I called the principal that night and told him I was done,” Ellen said of being a music teacher.
Ellen’s father gave the couple a dress to go pick the baby up in.
The Hansons named the baby after her two grandmothers and Ellen, Andrea Helen Hanson. “We felt nothing but joy she was ours from the beginning,” Ellen said.
Ellen admits she was not very prepared for the baby. Her mother had passed away, so she could not turn to her for advice. She did have some rattles, and one sleeper, but not much else.
All was well, though. “My mother’s friend helped me learn how to feed and take care of her,” Ellen said.
The community also helped the young couple as they became situated as young parents, “The whole town was nuts about the adoption, including my piano students,” Ellen said. “There must have been at least 30 to 40 women at one of my baby showers.”
As Andrea grew up, it was never hidden from her that she was adopted, or why her biological parents had given her up.
“My parents told me I was adopted before I even knew what it meant,” Andrea said. “It was a good way to go about it, because I always knew my identity.”
Ellen remembers reading a book about a little girl who was adopted to Andrea when she was 5 years old. She also wrote a letter at that time to Sandi and Dale that she left with LSS.
As Andrea reached her adolescence, she said she began thinking about what being adopted meant.
Ellen could see that Andrea thought a lot about it, saying, “Andrea was itchy in high school.”
Andrea admits there were times throughout her teen years she felt she didn’t belong where she was, “But, that was just teen stuff,” she said.
When Andrea was 14, Ellen told her about the letter Sandi had written her when she was born, but it was decided to wait until she was 18 to open it.
One thing Andrea said she did think about, especially on her birthdays, was a woman out in the world somewhere who was sad because she had given her baby away.
“I remember one birthday when Andrea was about 16 and I found her crying in her room,” Ellen recalls. “I asked, ‘what was the matter?’ And Andrea said, ‘I know my birth mother is thinking about me today I can feel it.”
When Andrea finally did open and read the letter Sandi had left her, Ellen said Sandi’s handwriting looked just like Andrea’s.
However, Andrea did not have a lot of reaction to the letter, and seemed to just take it matter of fact, Ellen said.
“It seemed a little bit scary to me,” Andrea said about trying to find her birth parents at that age. “There was no big hole in my life; I was content. I think kids who aren’t content in life look harder.”
“We had a wonderful life with Andrea, always encouraging her to do and explore whatever she wanted,” Ellen said.
The Hansons never brought up the subject of finding Andrea’s biological parents, because they were her parents, Ellen said.
“But we always let her know we would walk the walk with her if she would want to find them,” she said.
Although Andrea did check with LSS when she was 18, to see if her biological parents had left any more letters or were interested in finding her, there was nothing there.
Sandi and Dale were unaware of the fact that they could have left a letter at LSS.
“In my mind, I thought, OK they moved on that’s OK,” Andrea said.
However, Andrea did contact LSS with her new name when she got married and an updated address in 2007, she said.
After the Burau brothers knew about their biological sister, they began pushing their parents to try to contact her.
They said they were all overwhelmed by the fact that Andrea was a full-blood sibling, and felt a compulsion to find her.
Sandi had checked with LSS once and had received the letter Ellen had written when Andrea was five, she said.
But, over the years, Sandi and Dale never really pursued finding the baby they had given up for adoption.
What really kept them from searching for the baby they had given up was fear of the unknown.
“There was the fear of her not wanting to meet,” Sandi said, “or what if she had died.”
“Or drugs, or other things had fallen apart,” Dale added.
Then, last year, ABC aired a TV show “Find Your Family,” which began a renewed search.
Dale and his wife, Julie, were watching the show. “I could tell it had upset him, so I asked if he wanted to try to find the baby again,” Julie said.
The family talked it over and decided to pursue finding Andrea, and Sandi contacted LSS to begin the process.
Although LSS had a name and an address, it could not release that information to Sandi without Andrea’s permission, so all communication had to be handled through LSS.
Sandi did find out from LSS that Andrea lived in California, and wrote Andrea a letter in May 2010.
“[The letter] was a lot for me to take in, and I did not write a letter back right away” Andrea said. “I felt torn between excitement, and knowing I already had a family.”
When Andrea was back in Minnesota visiting her family in July, she contacted the social worker and was told more information about Sandi.
After that, Andrea began her own research and discovered Dale’s name, and she knew about the three boys, she said.
Andrea discovered the boys’ names in obituaries for their grandma and grandpa Diers.
Then she found Troy’s Facebook page. “It was cool when I saw a picture of Troy. The minute I saw it, it reminded me of some of my childhood pictures,” Andrea said.
By the end of July, Andrea still had not written a letter back to the Sandi. “I felt bad, but I needed time,” she said.
Then came the day when Andrea was showing a college friend, Tiffany, Troy’s Facebook page.
She happened to search for him from Tiffany’s Facebook page instead of her own, and a strange thing happened, Andrea said.
Facebook said Tiffany and Troy had a mutual friend, Katie.
It turns out Katie was one of Tiffany’s childhood friends, so Tiffany offered to call Katie to find out how she knew Troy.
When Tiffany called Katie, she found out Troy was her co-worker, and she knew the rest of the Burau family, as well.
Katie told Tiffany the family were good people, and Andrea did not have anything to worry about, which Tiffany informed Andrea about, Andrea said.
“After talking to Tiffany about her conversation with Katie, I sat down and wrote a letter and sent photos,” Andrea said.
One day, Troy decided to tell Katie about finding his biological sister and how he was looking forward to being able to meet her, Troy said.
Katie informed Troy she knew who his sister was, and Troy said he immediately put up a wall, asking suspiciously, “What’s her name?”
Katie gave him her name, and went on to explain the connection between herself, Tiffany, and Andrea.
The strange thing was, she had just talked to Tiffany that morning about everything that was going on, Troy said.
Katie had not wanted to say anything to Troy because she did not know how much Troy knew.
Although Katie did not give Troy a lot of information, Troy did his own research on Facebook to try to find Andrea, now that he had more clues.
Katie only had two friends named Tiffany on Facebook, Troy said, and only one of them had friends named Andrea, and only one of those Andreas lived in California.
“When I found Andrea’s picture on Facebook, I got goose bumps, because I saw the similarities,” Troy said.
That Saturday, Andrea and Katie had a one-and-one-half hour phone conversation about the Buraus and Sandi, Andrea said.
After the conversation, Katie called Troy to tell him she had spoken with Andrea, Troy said.
Andrea had let Katie know she had sent a letter and pictures to LSS for the family, Sandi said.
Upon finding out more about what her biological family was like, Andrea felt more comfortable communicating with them, and they began e-mailing and sending pictures back and forth.
“Sandi, Dale, and the boys all wrote letters to me beautiful letters for being written by boys,” Andrea said. “I kept thinking, ‘Who are these guys?’ They just love me!”
Although she could tell they were all anxious to meet her, the family always told her in all their communications they could wait until she was ready to meet, that it would be on her terms, Andrea said.
“That made me care for them and respect them even more,” she said.
Easing fear and anxiety
Although communication had opened up with her biological family and she was getting to know them more, Andrea said she had some really dark days in September.
She wanted to tell her parents about all she was learning about her biological family, but she knew they were still apprehensive about everything, Andrea said.
Ellen admits, “When Andrea got the call (about the letter from Sandi) back in May, my heart skipped a beat.”
She had also warned Andrea not to pursue finding her biological family if she was happy, because she never knew what she might get, Ellen said.
Andrea spent nearly a week worrying and crying about talking to her parents about her biological family, “The first thing I wanted to do was tell my parents,” she said. “But, I also thought, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to deal with this with my folks,’ and I felt so bad for them.”
Finally, Andrea called and talked to her parents about what was happening with her biological family.
“It was tough. Mom told me she supported me, but I could tell she was conflicted,” Andrea said.
Andrea began forwarding Ellen some of the e-mails she was receiving from her biological family, and Ellen told Andrea, “I will embrace this, don’t just leave me behind, take me with you.”
To which Andrea replied, “That’s great, because this is all of us.” In Andrea’s eyes, this was just part of their history as a family, she said.
The Hansons had moved to Maple Grove after Andrea graduated from high school, and Ellen was close to her pastor at Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Maple Grove.
She decided to forward him an e-mail from Troy which she thought was very sweet, she said.
The pastor recognized the name, having married Troy and his wife, Celeste, in the same church, the same year Andrea’s sister, Allison, had been married there.
Andrea and her husband, Tony had also been married in the church.
It turned out that Troy and Celeste had lived about two blocks away from Ellen and John when they had first moved to Maple Grove, and they were all attending the same church.
Eventually the topic of meeting face-to-face had to be addressed.
Since Andrea lived in California, she was only in Minnesota at Christmas and once in the summer. Ellen asked Andrea in the fall about meeting her biological family at Christmas.
At first Andrea did not want to meet at Christmas, but instead wanted to wait until summertime, Ellen said. “I felt so bad for that mother, having to wait that long.”
Soon, Andrea changed her mind, she also wanted her husband with her, and he only accompanies her at Christmas.
It was decided that the Buraus and Sandi would meet Andrea at her parents’ home.
“It worked to bring them into my parents’ home, bringing them into our world, rather than us going into their world,” Andrea said.
Rather than all the Buraus and Sandi going to the Hansons’ at once, the family arranged to meet in shifts so it would not be so overwhelming.
On the day of the meeting, Ellen asked Andrea how she was feeling. Andrea replied, “I’m just a wreck.”
The two went into Ellen’s craft room to take a break and settle before everyone started to show up.
“We prayed together, and Andrea said she felt much better,” Ellen said.
Sandi and Dale arrived at the Hansons’ first. “I remember her opening the door when we first met, thinking, ‘Wow!’ Then hugs and tears,” Dale said.
“I’ve been waiting all this time to hold you in my arms,” Sandi said as she hugged Andrea.
Sandi’s mother had made a quilt for each of her grandchildren when they married while she was still alive. After she passed away, there was still a quilt left. Sandi brought the quilt with her to give to Andrea.
The most emotional part of the day was when Dale hugged Ellen, and Sandi hugged John, thanking them for taking care of raising their child. “It was the most beautiful moment out of all of it,” Andrea said.
After an hour, it was the Burau brothers’ turn to meet their sister for the first time.
When they arrived, “I opened the door, and we all screamed and gave huge hugs,” Andrea said. “We were so elated! Every apprehension I had about meeting my birth parents was gone this is what was missing in my life. We were the fastest friends and siblings there ever were.”
“I felt like I gained three sons, it was the neatest thing,” Ellen said. “Seeing those four siblings together was like putting in the last piece of a puzzle.”
After a while, the Buraus’ wives joined everybody at the Hansons’ as well; Chad’s wife, Kelli; Celeste; Ross’ wife, Anne; and, Dale’s wife, Julie.
“The whole day went so well,” Sandi said. “Ellen and John both made us all so comfortable, and we all just couldn’t stop talking.”
The Hansons shared pictures of Andrea when she was growing up.
“The most memorable moment was when her dad popped in a DVD of her singing at church,” Kelli said. “Everyone had tears streaming down their faces.”
Although they were not supposed to, the gathering lasted so long, the Buraus and Sandi were able to meet Andrea’s two daughters, which everyone is happy about.
Up until that time, there were only boys in the family, with the exception of the wives. “Seeing the guys with the little girls was neat, because they acted so different,” Celeste said. “We’ve gotten to see a softer side of our guys, interacting with Andrea’s girls.”
“The whole experience has been surreal,” Kelli said. “This has opened up a new side of Chad, he’s opened up emotionally.”
“The way this all played out, how amazingly everything fell into place,” Chad said, “Everything has been perfect. We all wish we could see her more.”
“This experience in seeking and finding Andrea has been amazing!” Julie said. “It has been wonderful to see and feel God at work in this situation. God has guided every step. We are in awe of it all.”
At the end of the day, everybody got what they wanted. Andrea had a wonderful, loving family growing up with many opportunities.
“Her parents are really super people,” Sandi said. “What a really amazing, beautifil person Andrea turned out to be.”
Sandi and Dale now knew that the baby they had given up so long ago had been well-taken care of.
“Adoption was a really beautiful experience in my life,” Andrea said. “At the end of the day, what Dale and Sandi wanted for me, I got, and more. It worked. I was raised to believe the sky’s the limit to do what I want to do and be who I want to be.”
Ellen and John got the baby they had wanted for a long time, and when her biological family found her, it turned out well.
“We’re just sort of one big, happy family,” Ellen said. “We are all down-to-earth, and we all love our children.”
And, the Burau brothers found their sister.
“It’s really hard not to see God’s hand in this,” Andrea said. “When you believe in God, this was meant to be, the way this all played out.”