08/21/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
As a parenting adviser for About.com, the informational Web site, Jody Swarbrick gets an average of 125 e-mails a day. But one message she received last Sept. 17 immediately stood out. The sender had seen a photo on the Web site of Swarbrick's own large family—including 27 adopted children ages 8 to 30—and was struck by the descriptions of sons J.J., 12, and Sam, 10. "The e-mail was priceless," says Swarbrick, 47, who lives in Cedar Falls, Iowa, with 17 of her adopted kids, most of whom have special needs. "It said, 'I don't want to interfere with your life, but I'm just wondering if these might be my boys.' "
The sender was a woman named D.J., and she was indeed J.J. and Sam's birth mother, having put her sons, then named Jeremy and Devon, up for adoption in 1993, when she fled the boys' abusive father. "There wasn't a day that went by since that I didn't think of my boys," says D.J., 31, who, for safety reasons, has asked that her last name not be used.
Although the adoption was an open one, Swarbrick and the boys had not heard from D.J. since 1996, following an address mix-up at the social services agency that handled the case. In the meantime, D.J. had attended college in Phoenix, where she was raising her third son, Malcolm, 8, and had begun working as a domestic abuse counselor. An effort to seek parenting advice for a client led her to Swarbrick's Web site.
Soon after the e-mail exchange, D.J. flew to Cedar Falls for a visit and in March even moved in with Swarbrick and her sons for a time. "The boys were scared at first," notes Swarbrick, who also has a biological son, Eric, 29, from her recently ended marriage, "but they warmed up and had a good time getting to know their little brother Malcolm."
Although D.J. and Malcolm returned to Phoenix in June, she and the boys talk by phone nearly every day and are planning to spend Christmas together. "She turned out to be a really nice person. It felt really happy," says J.J. "I think the bond will grow," adds D.J. "The bridge has been established." Swarbrick thinks so too. "We're all excited about the future," she says. "We're a family, and I feel that we'll grow together."