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An International Falls woman was reunited with her son last summer after more than 50 years, thanks to social media.
It was a tearful reunion between Elaine (Millard) Johnson and her son, Michael O'Shaughnessy, who she put up for adoption in 1968. Video footage didn't appear to be two strangers meeting, instead it was the re-connection of a severed bond between a mother and son. Johnson can be seen breaking away from a tight embrace to take her son's face in her hands before hugging him again.
“There was this instant connection,” Johnson said. “It was very comfortable.”
It had been 51 years since Johnson had seen the face of the baby boy she gave birth to when she was 17 years old. Recalling the events of being pregnant brought back the fear, loneliness and feeling like she'd never experience joy again.
“Back then, it was the biggest shame,” she said of teen pregnancy. “That's just the way it was... I was terrified to tell my mother.”
It was the fall of Johnson's senior year in high school when she found out she was pregnant. The teenager was a good student on the school's drama team and came from a loving, Catholic family. Johnson's father had died five years earlier leaving behind his wife and five children.
“That was obviously very traumatic for our family,” Johnson said.
The baby's father was a year old than Johnson, and was attending college in Minneapolis. After learning of the pregnancy, the two became engaged.
“That was what was expected of us - we would get married and have the baby,” she said.
And although Johnson recalls being very weak-kneed, she knew the engagement wasn't right. She knew it wasn't the kind of love that would last forever.
“So I broke it off,” she said. “I don't know how I had the strength to do that.”
While Johnson recalls feeling relieved to have ended the engagement, she knew she needed to make a decision about the baby.
“Abortion was not an option for me... I don't even really think I knew what an abortion was,” she said. “My mom expected we would keep the baby, and right away, I was determined this baby was not going to bear the consequences of something I did.”
Without second guessing what she knew in her heart to be right for her situation, Johnson made the decision to put the baby up for adoption.
“I wanted the baby to have a chance for everything he deserved,” she said, adding her decision came with a clear vision of what the baby's life would be like. “I wanted him to have a Catholic family in a good neighborhood with a park at the end of the block.”
Johnson's son was born April 7, 1968, at La Verendrye Hospital in Fort Frances, Ontario. Johnson was alone when she delivered the baby – her mother had dropped her off when she went into labor.
“I had no idea what was going to happen,” she said of labor and delivery. “I laid there alone, not knowing what to expect. Thinking back about the experience, I was completely numb at the time.”
Throughout her five days in the hospital, Johnson was unable to bring herself to look at the baby. She was set on her decision and admits she was fearful she'd change her mind about giving him away.
Once she was discharged, the baby went one way with a social worker and Johnson returned home to the Falls, feeling empty and convinced happiness could never return to her life.
“I went up to my room and cried until I couldn't cry anymore,” she said.
The baby was adopted when he was four months old to a Catholic family who had two other adopted children. Before going to his new home in Virginia, Minn., Johnson agreed to see and hold her son.
“That was the best thing I did,” she said. “I fed him a bottle, changed his diaper and brought him a rattle... I told him I loved him and I was doing this because I loved him. It was very healing for me. It was very hard, but it was so important.”
The interaction brought a sense of closure for Johnson, and she knew she had made the right decision.
The next fall, Johnson enrolled in classes at Rainy River Community College. Still in a fog, she set her focus on redemption.
“I was in every activity and got straight A's,” she said. “I wanted to prove to everybody – I don't know who – that I was a good person. But it was tough.”
Eventually, Johnson married her longtime friend, Alan, and the couple had three children.
“I have had a really good life,” she said. “A life I thought was ruined was redeemed.”
Though she often thought of her first-born child, knowing information about her son did not consume Johnson's life. She decided she wouldn't make an attempt to find him for the same reasons she decided to put him up for adoption.
“I didn't want to interrupt his life,” she said. “Whenever I did picture him, I pictured him having a good life.”
When trying to get a U.S. passport without information about his birth parents, O'Shaughnessy's citizenship was questioned and became an immigration issue. The Canadian government provided O'Shaughnessy with a copy of his original birth certificate listing Elaine Millard as his possible birth mother. After a 20-minute Facebook search, he sent Johnson a personal message.
"I started shaking right away," she said of reading the message from a man in Delaware. "I knew it was him, it was my son."
After providing a brief summary of his life, O'Shaughnessy wrote that he understood if Johnson didn't want contact with him, but left his phone number just in case.
Without hesitation, Johnson dialed the number immediately.
“The first thing I said was, 'I'm your mother,'” she said. “I told him he was wanted and he was loved. I told him I gave him away so he could get the life he deserved.”
O'Shaughnessy told Johnson he had a wife and four children and grew up living a wonderful life. After so many years, Johnson's feeling of peace was true.
The first conversation was brief, but emotional. The two exchanged information and pledged to speak again soon. They finally met for the first time in June.
Johnson said she was welcomed by O'Shaughnessy's family – including his parents – with open arms. She was flooded with photos and stories of her son who grew up having everything she had pictured for him – including a park down the street from where he grew up.
“Adoption was the best for both of us,” she said. “And now we are part of each other's families... My family and his biological father's family always knew about him. Now Mike has about 60 new people in his life who know and love him.”
Johnson will share her story and shed light on options pregnant women have Jan. 25 at the Northern Options for Women annual gala.
The event themed “Life is a Long Song,” is a fundraiser for the local, nonprofit organization that serves as a free pregnancy resource center. The event begins at 5 p.m. at the AmericInn in International Falls.
“Making the decision to choose adoption was not easy for me and I know everyone's situation is different,” Johnson said. “It was really hard, but it was the right thing to do. Sometimes when something is hard, it doesn't mean it's not right... Meeting him and knowing him is validation that I made the right choice.”
Tickets for the event must be reserved before Wednesday. The cost is $40 each, two for $75 or a table of eight runs $300. Tickets can be reserved by calling Northern Options for Women at 285-7673, texting 283-8599 or at the organization's website, northeroptions.org.
When people picture homelessness, they may often think of people living on the streets, under bridges, or in alleyways.
Ariana Daniel, director of Servants of Shelter, insists this is usually not the case.
“Homelessness is invisible in most places – this idea that the small number of visibly homeless people in urban centers is what homelessness looks like is just wrong...that’s only a fraction of the people actually experiencing homelessness at any given time,” she said.
The lack of a visible homeless population in Borderland doesn’t mean one doesn't exist.
“Here, you’re seeing less (homeless people) simply because there is more space. They don’t have to be in places that people can see them,” Daniel said.
This lack of visibility will make for a challenge toward the end of this month when Koochiching County, along with the other five counties in the Northeast Minnesota Continuum of Care, participates in the Annual Point-in-Time Homeless Count on the night of Jan. 22.
What is the “Point in Time” count?
The PIT count is a nationwide requirement, by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, to help identify the minimum number of people experiencing homelessness and to learn more about the needs in the community.
“The count provides a snapshot of Koochiching County that will help our community understand trends, and respond to the needs of people experiencing homelessness,” Daniel said. “(It) captures the experiences and needs of our homeless population so that we can educate our community and improve services,” she added.
Koochiching County officials will use information from surveys to help bring funds for services to the area that help people experiencing homelessness connect to housing services.
How is the count conducted?
Due to the rural characteristics of Koochiching County, the PIT count cannot be done the same way it is conducted in metropolitan areas.
“Areas that are rural are notoriously undercounted," Daniel said.
Instead of physically going to shelters and under bridges and counting people, like done in urban areas, people who are homeless, and community members who know of people who are homeless, are asked to self-report. Organizations that provide services will help report and conduct surveys.
“All of us (Servants of Shelter, Kootasca, Salvation Army) work together to try and get an accurate count of who we are working with at that moment – who are doubled up, or living in motels or something – because they may not be actively looking for housing, but they are still living in a situation that is considered by the state of Minnesota to be homeless,” Daniel said.
She acknowledges that the self-reporting count often leads to undercounting, but said that is addressed in a number of ways. Employees at county social service agencies often fill out observational reports to help count people who are experiencing homelessness, without disclosing their personal information. Social services staff see more people who may not actively be working with with housing officials, but are still homeless, she said.
The PIT count week can be hectic for many local agencies.
“We all try to be very available that week because you can actually do the surveys for the entire week - it’s just that people actually have to be experiencing homelessness on the night of (the count),” Daniel said.
Since the count is only for people who are or will be homeless on one specific night, some people - including those in treatment or in jail - who would otherwise be homeless are left out of the count.
What qualifies as homeless?
The following living situations qualify as homeless for the count:
“The No. 1 reason we see people experiencing homelessness is that they do not have housing options that they can afford with low and stagnant wages,” Daniel explained.
While there are other reasons - job loss, divorce, disability, illness, fire – for being homeless, none of these factors compare to the large numbers of people whose wages simply won’t cover their rent and expenses, she said. Some people aren’t counted in the report because they have stopped actively looking for help through services, she added.
“Just like a job search, there’s a point where people give up... they may still be bouncing around, but they’re not looking (for housing),” she said.
Who collects the data?
A team of area organizations, community members, and public service agencies work together to collect surveys and help connect people to resources.
Most of the reporting and research are conducted by staff of local agencies who come in contact with people seeking their services.
“It’s Salvation Army, AEOA, the (Careerforce) center– we do reach out to local law enforcement, and the hospital and first responders to try to get the word out and just let as many people know who might come into contact with somebody,” Daniel said.
At last year’s PIT night, the Northeast Minnesota Continuum of Care counted 28 unsheltered homeless people; 22 unsheltered homeless households; 90 homeless (sheltered and unsheltered) people; 53 homeless (sheltered and unsheltered) households; 79 homeless doubled-up people; and 47 homeless doubled-up households, totaling 169 homeless people on Jan. 23, 2019.
The agencies will be set up at the Community Cafe at the Backus Community Center during the week of the count with informational tables, and to collect surveys.
“We set up at the Community Cafe because the Community Cafe has been designed to not have any sort of stigma,” she said.
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Schedule of events
The International Falls City Council approved appointments to internal and external committees Monday as it organizes for the year.
The council agreed to appoint Councilor Leon Ditsch as chair of the city's Legislative and Land Use Committee, replacing former chair Councilor Joe Krause. In addition, the council appointed Councilor Chelsea Nelson as chair of the city's Human Resources Committee, and added Mayor Harley Droba to replace Krause.
Krause and Droba explained those changes are to allow the workload to be spread across the council.
Other appointments involved appointment of Van Pavleck to the Fire Civil Service Commission; reappointment of Arthur Holt to the Housing and Redevelopment Authority; reappointment of John Dalton, Ashley Kostiuk and Darcy Sullivan to the Library Board of Trustees.
The council also:
In other business, the council heard from resident Bobbi Bernath, who voiced concern and frustration in seeing the ambulance and its staff at area grocery stores and restaurants, wondering why the ambulances are being used for such stops.
She said she'd been urged by two councilors to bring the concern to the council table and had not discussed it with Fire Chief Adam Mannausau.
Anderson told the council that ambulance staff are allowed to use the ambulances to get groceries and take-out meals from area restaurants, as well as pick up needed supplies from area businesses when they work long shifts at the Fire Hall.
Mannausau told The Journal Tuesday that there are times when staff are at the hall up to 20 hours, and ambulance staff are allowed to use ambulances to stop for food or groceries on the way back from hospital runs and transfers.
In that way, he said, they are available at all times to immediately respond to a 911 call or other emergencies.
In those instances, he said bags of groceries and carry out bags have been left on counters as the staff respond. Most area businesses, he said, have packed up the left items and taken them to the hall.
"It's reasonable for them to take an ambulance so they are available for 911 calls at all times," Mannausau said.
Also Monday, the council approved a mayoral proclamation declaring January Human Trafficking Awareness and Prevention Month and Jan. 11 as National Human Trafficking Awareness Day, as requested by Nancy Lee, representing International Falls Rotary.
Lee said the proclamation is supported by Rotary districts in Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota and parts of Ontario. She said the districts will focus on raising awareness, education of youth, reducing risk factors that make young people vulnerable, and stopping the demand.