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Published Saturday April 10th, 2010 at 11:56am

Original Article by Stefanie Thomas

Amila Cavazos, 52, stood outside the door of her father's small house in Abernathy, Houston - her hair neatly arranged, lipstick carefully applied, wearing her Sunday best. Waiting.

Jose Amstutz was in a hurry. After a quarter century of anticipation, he pushed the gas pedal to the floorboard, speeding along the highway that would take him into his birth mother's arms after 25 years of separation.

"I saw the lights in the rearview mirror," Amstutz said. But the state trooper who stopped him was sympathetic to his need for urgency and sent him on his way with a warning. "I put the piece of paper in my Life Book."

Only a short while later, the lives of Amstutz and Cavazos once again intertwined for the first time in more than two decades.

Church bells rang in the background and tears flowed freely as Amstutz and his older sister, Mary Haith, embraced their birth mother March 17.

Child Protective Services had removed the three Cavazos children from their birth mother's home in Brownfield in 1984 after the agency had responded to reports of neglect and abuse on several occasions. Amstutz was not quite 5 years old when he and his siblings entered the foster care system and were subsequently placed with the Children's Home of Lubbock.

In 1987, a Houston couple, Steve and Rebecca Amstutz, adopted all three Cavazos children and lovingly cared for them into adulthood. Now 30, Amstutz is a father of two who lives in Kingwood and earns a living as a deputy in Montgomery County.

But until recently, a part of his life, his past, his very identity was missing.

"I always thought of my birth mother, wondering what happened to her, wondering if she ever thought of me," he said. "Do I have other siblings, is she still alive?"

After several failed attempts to locate Amila Cavazos over the years, Amstutz finally found her in Rio Hondo, a small border town near Harlingen. After Amstutz had established initial contact by telephone and Cavazos showed excitement to hear from her long lost son, the two decided to meet as soon as possible.

Haith, Amstutz and his own children, 8-year-old Desiree and 9-year-old Xavier, drove nine hours to Lubbock. Cavazos drove 14.

"At first it was strange meeting her again; my sister was very nervous. We hadn't seen her in so long," Amstutz said. "Then she took us inside and we looked at photographs, some that I had never seen before."

Cavazos, too, saw photos of her children she'd never seen before, mementos Amstutz had gathered and carefully preserved in his Life Book, a folder thick with memories of his time at the children's home.

"Being able to share my Life Book with my birth mother after so many years was a great moment," Amstutz said. "I look forward to starting a relationship with her, pretty much from scratch."

For three days, Cavazos and her children got to know each other, little by little. They visited antique stores and shared homemade tortillas. Together, they drove to Brownfield to visit their childhood home, a crumbling, one-bedroom dwelling situated across the street from a sand pit that served as Amstutz' playground when he was a little boy.

"My birth mother told me more than once that she believes we had a better life," he said. "But she isn't asking a lot of questions about our lives yet, it's too fresh. I think she may be afraid to ask or say the wrong thing. But she's pleased to know her kids were taken of when she couldn't do it. I know she's proud of me."

Amstutz also paid a visit to the Children's Home of Lubbock. Strolling around the premises of his old stomping grounds, he noticed a little Hispanic boy sitting in a tree, looking down at the visiting stranger with curiosity.

"He looked just like me when I was little, and I was wondering if he was thinking what I was thinking all those times - are they parents that may want to take me home?" he said. "It was tough leaving there without taking any of the kids with us. I plan on adopting from there in the near future. Give back some of what I got."

Since Amstutz' story first appeared in The Observer in early March, media outlets in Houston and Lubbock have followed his journey, sending Amstutz' message across the state.

"My goal in this is to try to bring hope to other children out there, waiting for new parents, that there can be adoption with a happy ending," he said. "And hopefully, my story will keep some adults from making some of the mistakes my birth mother made. It's a story for parents who may be on the verge of making a choice; a choice that can have your children taken away from you."

Amstutz refuses to dwell on the past. Forgiveness, he said, is all-important.

"Forgiveness is at the root of all this," he said. "It's a choice I made. And just because I was dealt a bad hand when I was little, it was not an excuse for me not to move forward and become someone."

His story has touched an untold number of people already: the waitress in Lubbock who recognized her customers from a television newscast and started crying in the middle of the dining room; the antique store owner who was absorbed in reading Amstutz' front page story and told him what a great story he just saw in the Lubbock newspaper; the former high school friend who contacted a Houston television reporter to resume a long-ago friendship with Amstutz, writing, "I remember him so well; how he was so focused on foster children and the plans he had for life ahead when we were friends."

Kingwood business people who saw news reports of Amstutz' endeavor to reunite with his birth mother stepped up to ensure the dream would not shatter due to a lack of finances. Amegy Bank of Kingwood, El Ranchero restaurant, Encino Car Wash and Verizon Wireless of Kingwood donated to Amstutz' cause, allowing him to treat his birth mother to dinners and secure accommodations for his family in Lubbock.

"He started out as a customer, now he's part of our family. The owner of our store, Mr. Nick Singh, and I were both touched by this story," said Robert Erwin, general manager at Verizon. "Mr. Amstutz is someone who patrols our area every day, he's the head of our neighborhood watch - so we wanted to do whatever we could to help. He has done a lot for our community."

Amstutz said he is grateful for the support he received.

"I want to say thank you. I couldn't have done it without them," he said. "It was one less worry I had and it allowed me to focus on meeting my birth mom."

There are many positive influences, he said, people who have shaped his life, lending a hand along the way, boosting his self-confidence with gentle encouragement and high expectations.

"My adoptive parents, therapists, the people at the Children's Home of Lubbock, coaches teachers...they all helped me become who I am today," he said. "Especially my adoptive parents, Steve and Rebecca, they are my true heroes. They are my true parents in every way that matters."

Amstutz said while the reunion with his birth mother was joyful and warm, he knows that the tough part - working out the past - still lies ahead.

"There are questions I have that I think I have the right to get an answer to, but I won't push it on her. There's a healing process for her too," he said. "I want to know what happened to me when I was a youngster, even if she doesn't want to remember. I may hear things that are hurtful. It's not over, and there will be more tears shed."

When the visit drew to a close, saying good-bye was difficult. But for now, Amstutz has the answers he was looking for.

"I don't feel like I'm as lost as I used to be," he explained. "People used to ask me where my birth mom is - now I can tell them."

Amstutz celebrated his 30th birthday last week at home in Kingwood. One of his presents was a birthday card from his birth mother. It reads: "Happy birthday, son. I'm sorry for everything. I love you. I hope to see you again. From your mom, Amila Cavazos."

"It's the first birthday card I ever got from her that I can remember," he said.