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Published Sunday September 20th, 2009 at 6:47am

Original Article by Sara Schilling

Gwen Howell has her mother's build, her mother's hands and her mother's earlobes.

But she didn't know that until this summer, when she got to see photos of the woman who gave birth to her as a teenager and then made the painful decision to give her up for adoption.

Howell, 78, also got to meet her sister Sharon Schulties -- one of the seven siblings she never knew about until internet sleuthing and a twist of timing brought them together.

"I've been so blessed," Howell said last week, sitting with Schultieses in the living room of her Kennewick home. "I can't believe it's happened to me."

Howell was born Virginia Minnie Brown in Alberta, Canada, in 1931. Her adoptive parents -- who were in their 50s when they got her as an infant -- renamed her Gwen.

Howell had a happy life with them, she said. The family moved to the U.S. when Howell was a girl. She doesn't think her parents ever planned to tell her she was adopted, but it came out when her mother was going through the process of becoming a U.S. citizen.

Howell was about 11 years old at the time. Both her parents died a few years later, when she was a teenager.

Howell didn't know anything about her birth mother, not even the woman's name. She tried over the years to find out more but came up empty until recently when a relative used her birth name in an internet search.

Thousands of miles away in Canada, a great nephew of Marian North Brown -- Howell's birth mother -- was doing an online search of his own. He knew Brown had given a child up for adoption and wanted to see if he could track down the long-lost relative.

The searchers happened on each other. In no time, Howell was on the phone with Schulties, 59, of Saskatchewan, one of her seven younger half-brothers and sisters.

"It's a divine act of God," Schulties said.

Brown had never told any of her other children about the daughter she gave away as a teen. The woman died in 1981, nearly 30 years before her family's joyful reunion this summer.

But Schulties said she sees so much of her mom in Howell. The way she walks, her friendly nature, the way she always seems to take care of people.

"It must have broken her heart to have to give (Howell) away. I can't imagine the grief she must have felt," Schulties said. "But I'm just so elated to have another sister."

The other siblings feel the same way, Schulties said. Howell plans to meet them all when she takes a trip to Canada next year.

The Kennewick woman has a photograph of her birth mother framed in her living room. There's a striking resemblance between the two women.

Howell likes seeing that. She likes hearing stories about Brown's life -- about how she was an expert seamstress, an experienced cookie-baker and a generous hug-giver.

"I had a wonderful mother who gave birth to me and a wonderful mother who raised me," Howell said.

She's a mother herself, and a grandmother, great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother. Schulties and Marjorie Uhrich, 62, of Alberta, who is the niece of Howell's birth mother, traveled from Canada last week to meet their new relative and her family.

They spent most of the visit talking. They had a lifetime to catch up on.

Schulties said she felt a connection with Howell the first time they spoke, a sisterly bond. Howell felt the same way.

They missed out on decades together, but now they have the rest of their lives to make up for that. Howell thinks Brown would be happy.

"I feel like she's in heaven and knows we all found each other and we're a family," Howell said.