Nfld. & Labrador

Ontario man, 68, connects with Newfoundland family he never knew

An Ontario man says he can now fill in some missing branches of his family tree after finally connecting with his mother's birth family in western Newfoundland this spring, writes Bernice Hillier.

Making connections during COVID-19: Man finds his birth mother's family in N.L.

Rick Betts grew up in Ontario. Now, at 68, he's found his Newfoundland roots, after connecting with the extended family of his birth mother, Hazel Pennell. (Submitted by Rick Betts/Brenda Eldridge)

The pandemic is keeping some families apart right now, but an Ontario man who was adopted has found new family he never knew before, and they're just as happy as he is to have finally connected.

Rick Betts was born in 1952 to Hazel Pennell, a Newfoundland woman living in Ontario, who put him up for adoption.

Over the years, Pennell had lost touch with her family in Lark Harbour. Until they heard from Betts this spring, they didn't know she had had a child.

He and some newly found first cousins have now spent hours talking on the phone and over video, and they've been learning more about each other.

"It was an emotional connection that we had. It just opened up the floodgates," said Betts.

"We knew nothing, and now we feel we know everything. So it's been fabulous."

Betts as a young boy. (Submitted by Rick Betts)

Looking for years

Betts's story goes back to the early 1950s, when he was placed in foster care upon birth. He remained there until he was adopted at eight months old.

He said he had a great life as a child with his adoptive parents and his sister, who was also adopted. It never occurred to him until years later to even look for his biological parents.

"I had always known that I was adopted. It was never a family secret or anything like that," said Betts.

Betts, 68, says it's been an emotional connection. (Submitted by Rick Betts)

But, after his adoptive parents both died young, in their 50s, and he and his wife, Sandee, had children of their own, Betts started to think about his family medical history and he began a search in the early 1990s.

Betts was able to get some information from the Children's Aid Society in Toronto and from the adoption unit of the Ontario government, including his mother's name and birth date. He also knew that she was from somewhere in Newfoundland, but that she was no longer living there. Hazel Pennell's last known address was Florida, and the government was unable to locate her.

It's a whole new place to belong.- Rick Betts

Betts spent a lot of time searching online for birth, marriage, and death notices to try to find some reference to his birth mother but — since there are a lot of Pennells in Newfoundland and he didn't know which community she was from — he was unsuccessful.

The Ontario adoption unit was able to find Betts's biological father in 2001, and it passed on some information about the man's medical history, but the elderly gentleman did not wish to make a connection. Betts said he understood that.

Genetic testing makes the link

Betts's search for his biological mother did not progress further until DNA test kits became available a few years ago. Even then, there was no breakthrough until this spring, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and through the help of a total stranger who had also had DNA testing.

Rosemarie Whalen of Clarenville, who is searching for her biological father, had her DNA come up as a match — possibly third cousins — with Rick Betts on the AncestryDNA database.

Her husband, Jamie Whalen, contacted Betts to find out where he fit into his wife's family tree, and Betts shared with him what he knew about his mother's identity.

Through the course of his research on behalf of his wife, Whalen had pored over dozens of obituaries of possible family members, and he thought he remembered Hazel Pennell's name.

"It just happened to stick out. Every death notice that I used to read, every name would stick in my head, and I knew that, yeah, there is a death notice there somewhere that [included] a Hazel Pennell in it," said Whalen.

Rosemarie and Jamie Whalen are on their own search for Rosemarie's family roots. Through DNA testing, Rosemarie discovered that Betts was a distant cousin. (Submitted by Jamie Whalen)

Whalen found the funeral notice, for a Pennell from Lark Harbour who had a sister named Hazel, and he sent it to Betts.

Within days, in late April, Betts had connected with two newly discovered first cousins from Newfoundland, the children of his biological mother's brother, Freeman.

"This is like a huge tree that's got to get put together," said Betts.

"It's a whole new place to belong."

New details about a long-lost relative

It turns out Betts's relatives in Newfoundland are just as pleased as he is to finally get some answers about Hazel Pennell.

Since the late 1980s, Betts's first cousin, Brenda Eldridge, had tried to locate her father's long-lost sister, who had left Newfoundland as a young woman, only returning once for a visit.

"My grandfather always kept an 8-by-10 photo of her in his living room. He always talked about her," recalled Eldridge.

But Hazel Pennell didn't stay in contact, and the family didn't know that she'd had a baby, nor anything else about what happened to her, including whether she might possibly still be alive.

Eldridge said connecting with the son of her Aunt Hazel has been emotional.

"It seemed like it was a dream come true," said Eldridge. "And, to find out that we had another cousin, we were ecstatic."

Betts with his adoptive mother and sister. (Submitted by Rick Betts)

Eldridge said her 89-year-old father, Freeman, was surprised but also pleased to learn that his sister had a son, and they're in the process of arranging a video conversation between him and Betts. 

"My dad is over the moon," said Eldridge. "I think he often wondered where Aunt Hazel was, and what happened to her. Knowing that we have a piece of her in Rick, he's pretty excited."

Some of Rick Betts' newly found family, including his uncle Freeman Pennell and his cousins Brenda Eldridge, Murray Pennell and Colleen Wells. Betts is looking forward to meeting them all in person. (Submitted by Brenda Eldridge)

Too late to meet his mother

Unfortunately, there will be no reunion between Betts and his biological mother, as Hazel Pennell died more than four years ago in Florida.

Through new information he was able to piece together in May, Betts has identified his mother's last place of residence and has found her funeral notice.

Hazel Depaola was 93 when she died in October 2015. Her obituary does not mention her maiden name of Pennell, but it does state that her place of birth was Lark Harbour, Newfoundland. No children are listed in the funeral notice, so there are no brothers or sisters for Rick to meet.

Betts was glad to learn his birth mother had eventually married and appeared to have had a good life, which included work in the hospitality industry, travelling, and a love for animals, all according to her funeral notice.

And, even though he didn't get a chance to meet his biological mother, Betts feels the search was still worth the effort, and he's anxious to come to Newfoundland to meet his new cousins when pandemic restrictions permit him to do so.

Freeman Pennell, 89, is the last surviving sibling from Betts's birth mother's family. (Submitted by Brenda Eldridge)

Eldridge is also eager to meet Betts. She said if it weren't for COVID-19, she and her brother would have been on a plane to Ontario by now.

"I'm excited to meet him in person. I feel like I already know him, and I'm just so happy that we've connected."

Betts said he believes learning about his existence is helping his birth mother's Newfoundland family understand why she didn't stay in contact, as the early 1950s were a different era, when having a child outside of marriage had a stigma and shame attached to it.

"It sounds like there was a lot of holes and information they just didn't know about," said Betts. "I'm glad that I was able to fill in some of those gaps for sure. And it's very exciting, meeting all these relatives."

Betts with his family today. (Submitted by Rick Betts)

'It takes just one person'

Even though it took Betts nearly three decades to find the missing link that led him to his birth mother's family, he encourages other people searching for their roots to not give up.

For Jamie Whalen, who provided that missing link, and whose wife is still searching for her family roots, Betts' story gives him hope.

Click on the player to listen to the story, as aired on CBC Newfoundland Morning

Adopted Ontario man searches and finally finds his mother's birth family in western Newfoundland - and they're just as happy as he is about it. 7:55

"I mean, after 30 years looking for your mom, it just takes one person, after 30 years, to help."

Betts said his story proves that a long wait can eventually pay off.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Bernice Hillier is a host of CBC Newfoundland Morning, which airs weekday mornings across western and central Newfoundland, as well as southern Labrador.

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