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In 1987, Catholic Social Services helped Merri Blake make an adoption plan for her newborn daughter.

Twenty-eight years later, CSS was there again for Merri when she decided to search for the baby who grew up to become Courtney Buchholz, the happy, healthy and beloved daughter of Joan and John Luft.

Merri’s adoption experience was shrouded in deep secrecy for years. Only her parents, the late Paul and Lorraine Kauer, two close friends and her husband, Jeff, knew of the baby she had placed for adoption. Already the single-mother of a toddler at the time of the adoption, Merri never told her six siblings or her four other daughters, now ages 30, 24, 21 and 16, about Courtney.

“I was raised to believe that something like this was a bad thing, you know, like you did something bad and that’s why this has to happen. I didn’t realize that it could be something other than a bad thing,” Merri said. The culture of adoption has changed dramatically in recent decades, says Natalie Lecy, director of the CSS Family Services Department. “We really encourage open adoption for everyone today.

It’s healthier all around. Open adoption doesn’t mean that you’re going to be each other’s best friends, or even have regular contact, but rather that the lines of communication are always kept open, so that medical questions or grief issues that may come up with a child can be addressed as they do,” Lecy said.

Over time, Merri came to see her adoption decision as a beautiful thing. “I just wish I would have known that a lot sooner,” she said.

Once she decided to search for Courtney, things happened quickly.

By law, any birth parent or adoptee is allowed to initiate a search once the adoptee has reached the age of 18. Catholic Social Services is one of the few adoption agencies that still assists with the process. “Most agencies no longer offer this service, but CSS values the courage and selfless sacrifice of our clients who made this decision years ago so much that we’ve made a longterm commitment to help them,” Lecy said.

Catholic Social Services was able to connect Merri with Courtney’s mom, Joan Luft, who grew up in Mud Butte and, as luck would have it, was in the area visiting relatives. “Courtney was the second child we adopted through Catholic Social Services and it was never a big secret to the girls that they were adopted,” Joan said. “The doors of communication between Catholic Social Services and us were always open.”

A few days later, the two women met over coffee. Joan quickly shared Merri’s phone number with Courtney, who is married and living in Nashville now. The next day, Merri received a text that read: “This is Courtney. I want to talk sometime. How about tomorrow?”

“This whole thing moved a whole lot faster than I expected it to,” Merri laughed.

Courtney calls Merri’s decision to reach out to her “perfect timing.” Her older sister, Erin, had recently searched for her birth parents and the experience was a positive one. “So I planned to do it soon, too,” Courtney said. “Ever since I was little, I was always intrigued and kind of wanted to know who she was. After all, she’s part of who I am and the reason I am where I am today.”

Merri and Courtney’s first meeting took place in 2015 in the courtyard of a Nashville mall. There were lots of questions and answers, and plenty of tears, too. “We stayed and talked and talked until they kicked us out,” Merri said. “She just asked and asked and asked and I just answered and answered and answered.”

Courtney’s questions centered on Merri’s situation and circumstances at the time of her birth, her birth father and the history of her extended birth family. “She was so gracious answering all my questions,” Courtney said.

But first, Merri felt the need to explain. She told Courtney, “I just want you to know the reason that I did this. I couldn’t bring another baby into my home when I couldn’t even feed or clothe the one I already had.”

Merri had considered adoption with her first unplanned pregnancy but, with counseling from former CSS adoption specialist Ginger Carsentensen, decided against it. Less than a year later, Merri found herself pregnant again.

“Ginger was so amazing. She knew I wasn’t ready to place for adoption with my first child. And she knew I was ready to make an adoption plan the second time,” Merri said. “She understood exactly what I was going to do, probably before I did.”

When Courtney was born, Merri and the baby’s father decided adoption was the best thing for everyone involved. “I didn’t have a job. At times, I couldn’t even buy groceries or diapers.” She spent six years as a single mom, surviving on food stamps, public assistance and the kindness of friends and family. “It was a pretty hand-to- mouth existence.”

Merri decided not to see the baby after giving birth, and she wasn’t involved in choosing the adoptive parents. The concept of open adoption was unknown to her at the time. “But I thought, someday, maybe we’ll meet again. Through the years, you think about it all the time.

Every year on her birthday, I always thought about her. All the time, actually. You always you wonder,” Merri said.

Merri’s biggest fear — that Courtney would resent her for choosing to parent her first child but place her second for adoption – proved unfounded.

“I understand her reasons. I would have done the same thing,” Courtney said. “If someone has the courage and bravery to give their child up for adoption, then they must be a really caring and kind person. I never felt any resentment at all. I know I was very fortunate to wind up where I did.”

Where Courtney “ended up” couldn’t have pleased Merri more if she had chosen the family herself.

“Her parents could not have raised her any better. She is so caring and considerate and such a good person. She is such a sweet girl,” Merri said.

Today, Merri and Courtney keep in touch by text, telephone and Facebook. “We talk all the time. We call weekly,” Merri said. And they continue to explore the boundaries and blessings of this expanded definition of family.

“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t sort of confusing,” Courtney said of the relationship between the family she grew up with and her biological family. The Lufts have always been a small, tightly- knit family. “Joan is my mom. These are the people that I’ve given my whole heart to, and then to find Merri’s large, extended family. What part of myself do I give them?”

“Merri, I call her my birth mom,” she said. “It’s like discovering someone you’ve always known somehow. I’ve always had love for Merri, even before I knew her name.”

Joan encourages the contact.

“We were never threatened by them searching, or thought it would hurt our feelings,” she said. Tragically, John Luft died unexpectedly of a massive heart attack five years ago at age 63, before getting to meet the birth mothers of his two daughters. “Not a day went by that we did not want to thank the birth mothers and birth fathers for this gift,” Joan said.

Joan, Courtney and Merri may have different perspectives on the adoption experience, but they share a common gratitude for it.

“We are all very lucky,” said Joan.