- Associated Press - Saturday, July 4, 2015

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) - Betty Stuart and her daughter, Norma Mercedes “Mechi” Perugachi Roeder, got a lesson in the life-changing power of the Internet this spring. Nearly 40 years after Stuart adopted Mechi and brought her to the United States, the two connected with Mechi’s birth parents and nine siblings in Ecuador.

“They (members of the birth family) were learning how to use the Internet to find people and so they put Mechi’s full name in there and it went right to the story,” the 89-year-old Stuart recalls.

“The story” was a six-part series, published in 2011 in The Tribune, chronicling how Stuart, a volunteer Peace Corps nurse, treated and bonded with the seriously injured 2-year-old Mechi in the mid-1970s.

After the connection was made, the Red Cross office in Elkhart quickly arranged a translator and facilitated a call to Quito, Ecuador, where Mechi spoke to her parents and birth siblings for the first time since her adoption.

Mechi, now 41, has limited ability to speak because of a neurological condition that also afflicts her birth father. But with her warm and friendly smile, she clearly communicates that she understands what is being asked, even if her response to questions is limited to a few words.



How did it feel to speak to her birth parents and siblings? “I don’t know what to say,” Mechi answered, before finally affirming that it felt “good.”

Mechi’s medical problems began when she lost both hands as a toddler, bitten by pigs after wandering into their feeding area.

Stuart was charged with the child’s rehabilitation, and the two developed a bond. When Mechi was no longer being helped at the Ecuadorian hospital and, instead, shoved into a crib so small that she couldn’t even move around, Stuart took the child home.

“We slept on a narrow cot at one of my (colleagues’) house,” she recalled. Eventually, Mechi required the type of treatment and rehab that she could receive only in the United States. Stuart was appointed Mechi’s legal guardian, and that allowed the girl to come to this country on special medical passport. The pair came to California, where they met Stuart’s two adult daughters, Rose Ann Ohr, who still lives in California, and Judith Baxter, who lives in Colorado.

The sisters fell in love with Mechi and encouraged their mother to adopt the child. But Stuart thought that would be nearly impossible in the United States because she was single and Mechi’s birth parents were still alive.

She returned to Ecuador and obtained permission from Mechi’s family to proceed. Stuart adopted the toddler and moved with her to California in 1978.

In the U.S., Mechi experienced most normal childhood activities. She and her adoptive mother relocated to Arizona, where Mechi graduated from high school in 1993.

“When she was 16, she learned how to drive,” said Stuart, who now lives in Karl King Tower in South Bend. Mechi even did something that is a rite of passage for recent high school graduates - she went on a trip with friends.

“She was gone (for the summer), and then she called me and asked if she could come home,” Stuart remembers.

By that time, South Bend was home for Stuart, and Mechi joined her in Michiana. Goodwill Industries helped Mechi land a job in the mailroom at Crowe Chizek LLP, and the woman built a life in South Bend, marrying in 2009 and giving birth to two children.

She was diagnosed with spinocerebellar ataxia, a degenerative and hereditary neurological condition, in her early 30s.

Mechi and her husband, Brian Roeder, now live with their children in River Park.

Fran Dutton, who works for the Red Cross office in Elkhart County, recalls that Mechi’s birth family sought out the Red Cross for help. From Ecuador, the request was sent to Washington, D.C., before landing on Dutton’s desk. Dutton is the northern Indiana coordinator of a Red Cross program called Restoring Family Links that helps people locate and reconnect with family members who are refugees, have been dislocated by natural disasters or were involved in international adoptions.

Dutton, at first, couldn’t find Mechi because she had changed her surname in marriage. So, Dutton connected with Stuart.

“I called Betty and she said, ‘That is my Mechi,’ and it kind of went from there,” Dutton said.

Roeder said that speaking to Mechi’s birth family via Facebook messaging and Skype had a profound impact on her that was not clear to him when he first informed his wife that her birth family wanted to get in contact.

“We did the conference call and we started talking and she started crying and you could tell that they on the other side were crying, too,” he said.

Roeder added that despite the distance between South Bend and Quito, the two families have a great deal in common.

“I learned that they are very religious and one of her sister’s daughters is just like my daughter. She is making selfies on the cellphone a lot similar to us,” he added.

Roeder hopes the two sides of Mechi’s family can meet. Her birth family would like the Roeders to come to Ecuador, but Mechi’s medical conditions present a challenge. Still, the couple hope to go to South America, if not later this year, then after their tax refund comes early next year, Roeder says.

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Source: South Bend Tribune, https://bit.ly/1JrphJB

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Information from: South Bend Tribune, https://www.southbendtribune.com

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