Ontario man greeted with open arms by birth mother's N.L. family

·3 min read
Ninety-year-old Freeman Pennell of Lark Harbour, N.L., couldn't hold back tears as he met his nephew, Rick Betts, for the first time. Betts is the biological son of Pennell's sister, Hazel. (Submitted by Sandee Betts - image credit)
Ninety-year-old Freeman Pennell of Lark Harbour, N.L., couldn't hold back tears as he met his nephew, Rick Betts, for the first time. Betts is the biological son of Pennell's sister, Hazel. (Submitted by Sandee Betts - image credit)
Submitted by Sandee Betts
Submitted by Sandee Betts

He started out just looking for information, but Rick Betts has found himself in the warm embrace of family, nearly 30 years after he started his search.

Betts, 69, and his wife, Sandee, arrived in western Newfoundland on Monday, to meet his birth mother's relatives.

Three newly discovered first cousins and an aunt were at Deer Lake Airport to greet them, with enthusiastic hugs and happy tears.

"We never thought we'd be welcomed with open arms like this, and all the love and care here, to see it in everybody's faces," said Rick Betts. "I just can't believe how fortunate we are to be here."

Bernice Hillier/CBC
Bernice Hillier/CBC

Finding mom's family

Betts was born in 1952 to a woman named Hazel Pennell, originally from Lark Harbour, then living in Ontario, and he was put up for adoption as an infant.

But Betts didn't know either of his birth parents' names, although he always knew he was adopted.

He started a search in the 1990s in hopes of getting information about family medical history that could be of benefit to his own children.

Even after learning that his mother was a Pennell from Newfoundland, and getting DNA testing, he still didn't have any luck locating her or her family until, by coincidence, an N.L. man who was also doing genealogical research helped Betts to connect with the Pennells of Lark Harbour last year.

Ever since, Rick and Sandee Betts have been keeping in close contact by phone and video calls with two cousins in particular, and the Ontario couple had been looking forward to visiting Newfoundland.

Bernice Hillier/CBC
Bernice Hillier/CBC

A missing piece of the family puzzle

His Newfoundland family had been eagerly anticipating the meeting as well.

At the airport, several of them gathered with a red sign that read, "Welcome Rick and Sandee!!"

Ninety-year-old Freeman Pennell, the only surviving sibling of Rick Betts's mother, wasn't well enough to join the airport welcome party.

His son, Murray Pennell, was there, however, and recalled hearing family members speak about "Aunt Hazel," who moved away as a young woman and with whom family had lost contact. (The family learned just in the past year that Hazel Pennell Depaola died at the age of 93 in 2015 in Florida. Her funeral notice lists no children.)

"She used to write my grandmother, but it's sad that the letters weren't kept, because we could have looked at the postmarks, find out where they were coming from," said Pennell.

His sister, Brenda Eldridge, was both teary-eyed and smiling broadly as she waited for Betts to arrive.

"I'm a bit emotional. I think I might be able to pick him out as he's walking through, and I'm sure they're going to be as excited to be here as we are here waiting for them," said Eldridge.

Submitted by Murray Pennell
Submitted by Murray Pennell

Welcoming a new cousin to the family

Sure enough, as Rick and Sandee Betts approached, they were greeted by whoops and cheers from the Pennell family just outside the airport's arrivals area.

Immediately, the cousin they'd been missing without knowing was embraced with hugs, as tears rolled down everyone's faces.

Sandee Betts said the welcome they've received, both from a distance and now in person, far exceeded their expectations.

"He was expecting just to find information. He never expected to find a new family," said Betts.

"So, to him, this is a whole new life for us and our children. Everybody is just so happy about it."

Betts said she hopes their now adult children can accompany them on a future trip to Newfoundland.

For this first visit, however, the Betts plan to spend their time meeting more of the extended Pennell family, looking through family photos, and no doubt seeing resemblances in the faces of relatives they've only just come to know.

Submitted by Murray Pennell
Submitted by Murray Pennell

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