Sheila Valdez shrugged out of her heavy winter coat, glad to be in out of the cold and sleet. With five days to go before Christmas, her neat red brick home was warm and bright with white lace and red accents.
As her fiance, Jim Dittrich, puttered in the kitchen, Valdez settled in at the dining room table and booted up her laptop.
"I was doing the dishes, and she yells at me, 'Jim! Come here!'," he says. "The way she said it, and she was crying ... I thought she had fallen or had gotten hurt."
He rushed into the dining room to find Valdez at the computer, crying.
"We found Heidi," she whispered through tears.
Valdez had finally found the sister for whom she had searched for decades.
A lifelong quest
Valdez was 17 when she first realized she had a half-sister. Her mother had died a year earlier.
"I was out with my friends one night, and when I came home, I guess my Dad didn't hear me come in. I was coming in the back porch and I overheard him talking to several of his friends – they were playing cards. I remember hearing him say, 'I wish I could see my little Heidi'," she says.
Although her father's wistful utterance stayed with her, Valdez didn't prod him for information.
"I just let it go. It's really not my place to ask," she says.
The years rolled by; Valdez had just given birth to her second son when the longing to meet her unknown sister began to tug at her heart strings.
"Something clicked in my mind," she says.
But then, the Internet had yet to unfurl its reach, and it was difficult to search out lost relatives. Valdez reached out to family members in an effort to learn more about Heidi, but didn't get very far.
"I just let it go again," she says.
It wasn't until her youngest daughter was in kindergarten that Valdez began working on mapping out a family tree. By then, technology had developed, and she was able to use computer searches to find her mother's side of the family.
But finding information about her father's side of the family was frustrating, and she let her search lapse until about 2 1/2 years ago. Then, one day, Valdez was chatting with a cousin who lives in San Antonio, Texas. The cousin told her she would look through a box of things given to her mother by her paternal grandmother.
It turned out the box contained photos of Heidi as a child, pictures that had somehow survived a fire. The cousin sent Valdez the pictures, which show a strong family resemblance.
"They had lost everything in that fire," Valdez says, her voice breaking. "I believe they survived and they found their way to me because of God."
Valdez showed the photos to everyone she could think of, but no one recognized the chubby, dark-eyed little girl.
"It turned out she was from Germany, and had stayed in Germany when my Dad came home from the service," Valdez says.
Her Dad, Dario Valdez Jr., served with the U.S. Army and was stationed at Schwäbisch Hall military base in Germany in the 1950s. Heidi was born in 1955. He returned home in the late 1950s, met and married the sister of an Army buddy; Sheila Valdez was born to the couple on April 28,1960, and grew up in Parryville.
"I had to find her, and there was no stopping me," Valdez says of her search for Heidi.
She went to work on the computer, devoting virtually every waking hour to her quest. She took her search to several military sites, and to the popular social networking site, Facebook. It was there she found a site called "Old Soldiers."
The power of print
She posted the pictures of Heidi and her Dad, and her own information on a Facebook page devoted to soldiers who had served in Germany. That's when Daniela Rode became involved.
Rode was a member of a Facebook page called GI Babies Germany. Rode distributed fliers with Heidi's picture, and Valdez' information throughout the small German town of Murrhardt, which is near Schwäbisch Hall.
The town's name is stamped on the back of the photo of Heidi as a child.
But the fliers drew no response. Rode then turned to a local newspaper, Murrhardter Zeitung, and asked that a story be published about Valdez' search.
It was that story, published on Dec. 20, that brought Heidi and Sheila together that very day. Heidi's brother saw the story, and alerted his sister, who lives with her husband, Dieter Muller, in Rosengarten-Westheim, not too far from Murrhardt.
Heidi's mother cried when she read the story, Valdez says.
Rode is a "search angel" for G.I. Babies Germany.
"We usually look for the fathers of the kids the U.S. soldiers left behind. The average age is (about) 45, so they are grown. We look for fathers from World War II as well," Rode says.
She says the group has reunited "quite a few" children of soldiers with their fathers and/or siblings.
Rode, who is active on several similar websites, said that when she saw the plea for help from Valdez, she sent Valdez an email, offering to do what she could. Being a German citizen made it a little less difficult to search for Heidi, and the idea of printing Valdez' story in a local newspaper seemed like a good plan.
"It is quite hard to find anybody in Germany due to very strict privacy laws and having only a first name," Rode says. "And if the papers run the stories for free, why not try, right?"
"I received an email from the lady that did the story a few hours after the paper came out. The husband had called her and gave her permission to give me the contact information," Rode says."I called the number I was given that evening. I didn't talk to Sheila's sister because she was still so touched, excited and crazy with emotions, she couldn't talk on the phone. Her husband gave me the information he had."
Rode says Heidi's "brothers are still living in Murrhardt, they saw the pictures and informed her of the story. They were 99.9 percent sure, but verified with her mother, who is still alive."
On that gloomy Dec. 20, as she sat with her laptop after work, Valdez opened the email from Rode that contained Heidi's name, Adelheid Muller, address, and other information.
"Daniela was my Godsend," Valdez says. "I just kept reading that email over and over."
She immediately wrote her sister a letter.
"Today being the 20th of December, I find my emotions overflowing with love and satisfaction," the first line of the first letter reads.
The next day, Heidi wrote back:
"Today is December 21. I am very pleased to hear from you. When my brother was reading the article in the newspaper, he called me immediately. I was confused. I have a sister in America!" she wrote.
In a Dec. 24 message, she wrote that "Sheila, it's Christmas, and you have given me the best Christmas present my family in America!"
The two have continued to get to know each other through email messages and through Facebook.
Sadly, Valdez' father died in 1985, and so never knew how his younger daughter sought her sister.
Valdez hopes to arrange a meeting with Heidi soon. As it turns out, Heidi and her husband, Dieter, have traveled to the United States, at one point coming as close to Valdez as New York City.
The Valdez-Dittrich household is no stranger to family reunions: Dittrich, who was adopted as a child and lived in the Lehigh Valley and Florida, found his birth mother, Elaine Searfoss, in Lansford on Mother's Day, 1984. He now goes by the name Jim Searfoss, and, now that his adoptive parents have passed on, plans to reverse the adoption in the near future.