A 23-Year Reunion

By Sarah Ford

VOICE vendor Raelene Johnson spent the holiday season with her son Jamar, who she reconnected with in 2018 after reluctantly giving him up for foster care at age three. They told the VOICE about their reunion and how fate helped them find each other after over 20 years.

Photos from Estes Park and the Stanley Hotel, which Raelene and Jamar visited together in mid-December. (Credit: Raelene Johnson)

Photos from Estes Park and the Stanley Hotel, which Raelene and Jamar visited together in mid-December. (Credit: Raelene Johnson)

Jamar Washington rarely posts anything about his birthday on Facebook or social media. Usually, he simply leaves a short note thanking friends for their well-wishes. But for some reason, his 26th birthday on July 31, 2018, was different. He led up to the day posting about the upcoming celebration, and it led him to the best surprise gift he could imagine. 

“Out of nowhere, my sister messaged me and said ‘I’m looking for my brother and you look like you might be him.’ I looked at her and was like ‘woah, that is her.’ It was crazy because I hadn’t seen her in 20-something years,” Jamar says. 

His posts about his birthday had led his sister, Starlina, to find him and finally reach out after years of separation. They were separated in 1995, when they were sent to different foster families. 

Soon, Jamar had an overwhelming number of family members he had never met reaching out to him. He met nieces and nephews, another sister, and finally, the mother he’d never known. 

When Starlina told Raelene that she’d found her brother and Raelene’s son, all Raelene says she felt was worry. Worry over what the son she gave up would think, what he had been told about her and her history. 

They first spoke on Jamar’s birthday, and Raelene told him one thing. 

“I told him to Google my name,” she says. “So you can judge for yourself what I’ve done out here.” 

When he did search Raelene’s name, looking through articles written by and about her in the VOICE, he found a woman nothing like the one who had given him up years ago. 

“I found out she turned her life around,” Jamar says. “That’s what made me give her the chance.”

He knew his mother had struggled with severe addiction, that she had experienced homelessness and carried a record. But that wasn’t the woman he found himself quickly bonding with as they finally re-met over a Skype call. 

“He told me I wasn’t the same person I was when I had him. If I was, he would have nothing to do with me. But I’m completely different,” says Raelene. 

“If she was the same person, I wouldn’t even talk to her,” says Jamer. “[Her story] shocked me. To go from being homeless to breaking [her addiction to] drugs to getting your own place and own car … that’s only moving forward.” 

Ralene and Jamar regularly talked via Skype after being reconnected in July. (Credit: Raelene Johnson)

Ralene and Jamar regularly talked via Skype after being reconnected in July. (Credit: Raelene Johnson)

Mother and son began regular Skype calls, learning everything about one another, and Jamar suddenly found himself part of an extended family again. That feeling was something else he’d lost years ago. 

Jamar lost his foster father when he was 11, and then his foster mother when he was 17. Just four months later, his foster sister followed, and he was alone. 

He still finished high school, moving to Norfolk from Chesapeake Bay. There he first rented his own apartment, then surfed friends’ couches as he finished high school. Despite the isolation, he didn’t think about trying to find his maternal parents. 

“I wasn’t really worried about looking for my parents because I thought, personally, I didn’t see how anyone could lose their kids,” he says. “Even though there’s a lot of reasons why it could happen, you never know the real reason why.” 

Raelene was always thinking about Jamar. 

“Holidays, birthdays … I woke up thinking ‘is he ok?’” she says. 

But on Christmas day 2018, she didn’t have to wake up wondering. A benefactor from Raelene’s church was moved enough by their story of reconnection to pay for Jamar’s flight to Colorado for the holidays. Jamar arrived in Colorado on December 1, where he and Raelene met face-to-face for the first time in 23 years. 

They spent the whole month together as Raelene showed Jamar the home that gave her a fresh start. The two visited Estes Park, the Stanley Motel, and of course Raelene’s home of Boulder. That included the places she used to sleep while homeless, such as the bridge under Broadway between Arapahoe and Canyon Streets. 

“It’s nice,” Jamer says. “It’s quiet, you can’t hear nothing from the street above.” 

With all the time spent together, they learned more about one another than they ever could in video chats. Jamar and Raelene both marvel over the intrinsic thread that seems to connect them despite their years of separation.  

“We are so much alike,” Ralene emphasizes. 

“I’ve always wondered why I was the way that I was, very energetic and a child at heart,” says Jamar. “Now, seeing her, I know.” They share everything from fashion preferences for eccentric hats and funny onesies to the same taste in coffee. 

“We went to Capitol One and I told him to pick out a drink,” says Raelene. “The first time, he picks out the only drink I drink in there, and everyone was like ‘woah.’”

They also find themselves in sync in how they choose to honor the most important influences in their lives. Both have a winged tattoo sitting in the same place on their opposite forearms. Raelene’s wings sit on the shoulders of a cross centered with a heart, reminding her that one day Jesus will put wings on her own shoulders. 

The wings on Jamar’s tattoo point upward with a rose sitting in the middle, his late foster mother’s name engraved below. 

Raelene Johnson and her son, Jamar, met face-to-face for the first time in over 20 years in December. Jamar visited the VOICE office with Raelene to meet fellow vendors and staff on December 13. (Credit: Sarah Ford)

Raelene Johnson and her son, Jamar, met face-to-face for the first time in over 20 years in December. Jamar visited the VOICE office with Raelene to meet fellow vendors and staff on December 13. (Credit: Sarah Ford)

But similarities go beyond personal tastes. Raelene and Jamar have both faced difficulties with the law and near-death experiences that could have taken them from each other before they ever met. 

Two years ago, a moped accident that left Jamar with massive internal injuries, requiring two blood transfusions and extensive surgery. The trauma was so severe that he is now on permanent disability after the accident. 

“My son could have died a year and a half before he was found,” says Raelene. “That was always my biggest fear, that I’d never know what happened to my son. But I also knew that if my son ever came back, I had to get right.”

“Before I came out here, I could have died many times before getting clean and sober. So we could have lost each other permanently. I’m just grateful that my son is with me,” she says. 

It still hurts thinking about those lost years when she gave Jamar up, but Raelene says she is grateful he went to a good and loving family who cared for him. 

For his part, although Jamar never searched out his birth family until they found him, he is glad to share the man he has become with them. A man both he and Raelene are proud of. 

“I can’t be mad about something that happened 23 years ago,” he says. “If I held onto that, then I’d be mad forever, even into old age. There’s no point in me being mad about the past because I am who I am regardless of what happened. She wasn’t there to make me do any good or any bad that I did over 23 years.” 

They’re now making up for the lost time, and remained inseparable throughout Jamar’s month-long trip to Colorado. 

When he returned to Virginia, it is to a long-time girlfriend and young daughter he is helping to raise. A daughter Raelene now considers her granddaughter. 

“I told him it doesn’t have to be by birth. Do you love the girl? And you’re helping raise the girl? Then that’s my granddaughter,” she says. 

Jamar is also helping to take care of his newfound sister Melody’s 19-year-old son, Jaza, giving him a place to stay and guidance. The kind of guidance he wishes he could have gotten at that age. 

“He’s young, he’s got a lot of life to live,” Jamar says. “I’m just helping him with whatever I can, because I know I used to be reckless when I was younger. I know it’s easy to get into some stuff. So I just try to keep him on the right path,” he says. 

“I wish I had somebody [at that age]” he says. “I had nobody, I was alone.” 

But with his birth mother sitting next to him, his immediate and extended family waiting for him back in Virginia, he’s not alone anymore. ■