Through the Restoring Family Links program, National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies around the world work together to locate missing people and reconnect them with their loved ones. In this special post, Sam Lute, Program Director for the American Red Cross Eastern New York Region, describes his experience with a Restoring Family Links case that stretched all the way from Slovakia in Central Europe to a small community in Upstate New York…
It all started with a woman in Slovakia, looking for her cousin in Upstate New York. Both are seniors, now in their mid-eighties, who grew up together and stayed in regular contact until 2009 when the man in Upstate New York just disappeared.
Earlier this year, the woman initiated a “Restoring Family Links” case through the Slovak Red Cross. She had her cousin’s address and phone number from ten years ago, but not much else.
There was a good likelihood that he had passed away. All of my cases to this point had been pretty bleak, mostly notifying enquirers that, after years of not knowing, their family member was, in fact, deceased. In this case, I expected that either my trail would go cold or I would learn that the man had died alone. Still, I set out to find what I could.
I tried the phone number and found it no longer in service. I visited the address and found a home, run down and seemingly abandoned, complete with rotted, broken porch stairs and a giant hornet’s nest on the ceiling of the front porch. The house appeared totally empty. I knocked on doors and windows, looking for signs of life. Nothing.
I then started knocking on neighbors’ doors. I caught one man as he was heading out, who told me that the house I was interested in had been abandoned for at least 10 years. He remembered the last tenant as “an older Russian guy.” He mentioned that the owner of the house had died several years before, and that the Russian tenant was now gone, but the neighbor occasionally saw him walking around town, wearing a backpack.
Next, I went to the village clerk’s office. I had already called, but they couldn’t find any record of the man I was searching for. I decided to visit and talk to them in person. While there, two employees eventually recommended that I visit “the monastery.”
They were referring to a Russian Orthodox monastery and seminary not too far away. The clerks gave me the address, and I drove over. There I found a giant, beautiful structure tucked out in the countryside. There was a bookstore near the entrance to one of the buildings, staffed by a young seminary student to whom I explained my quest.
He didn’t know the person I was looking for, but he called a member of the clergy and, after a little while, one of the priests came down to see me. He apologized for the wait, but I assured him that it was no trouble. I deal with so many disconnected phones and dead ends that, for even a tiny lead, it would be worth waiting.
The priest was one of the friendliest people I have ever met in my life. We started brainstorming together, and I think that he was having fun with it, kind of like a puzzle we were both very excited to solve.
He didn’t know the man, but he was aware of a group of Slovak parishioners. He called one, who didn’t know the man either, but knew someone who might have more info. That led to another call which led to another call, until finally the priest was talking to a man who lived about two miles from the monastery.
“Yes. He lives here and has been staying with us for several years.”
I took down the man’s contact information and drove right over. I met with the owner of the house. He was hesitant with me at first, very protective of the man I was searching for. Once I gained his trust, he warned me that, although the man was in great physical health, he was suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s disease, and before living there, had taken to roaming the highways—carrying his stuff in a backpack.
Eventually, the home owner agreed to introduce me to the man. After my early assumption that he had likely died or disappeared without a trace, there he was. A near stranger had taken him in and was caring for him. Although his Alzheimer’s disease was severe, he seemed very happy. He was wearing clean clothes, living in a beautiful home, and eating healthy food. He loved to talk, and he was very friendly.
At one point, I asked to take his photograph so that I could send it to his cousin. His face just lit up! He got super excited and insisted that he go change clothes. He came back and put a lot of thought into where he would stand and how he would pose.
We talked for an hour or so, before I had to leave. It was very difficult to get out the door, and I hated to walk away while this was clearly such an exciting day for him. He wanted to keep talking to me, so he joyfully followed me out to the car, telling stories all the while.
It was a relief for me to find that this man had found people to care for him, and that despite his condition, he still has joy in his life. In the end, I was able to give his contact information, through the Red Cross, to his cousin in Slovakia, who had asked us to find him for her.
All in all, it was a very good day.
To learn more about how Red Cross and Red Crescent teams help to reconnect families through the world’s largest humanitarian network, please visit redcross.org/reconnectingfamilies.