Ania McNamara clutched a napkin bearing a hand-drawn map as she walked down a barren street in Chotomow, Poland. She came to the spot the store clerk had marked and looked up at the building. It was the same green gate from her memories.
The sign read, "Dom Dziecka," the House of Children.
A few kids ran through the yard as McNamara made her way up the path. "Where are the sisters?" she asked in Polish. One pointed toward the house. McNamara made her way to the door and knocked.
"Can I speak to the sisters?" she asked the little girl who opened the door. The child disappeared into the orphanage and soon returned with an old nun.
In broken Polish, McNamara tried to explain who she was. But she didn't need to. Sister Elizabeth knew.
"The eyes of little Ania," Sister Elizabeth exclaimed.
McNamara, a 20-year-old student at Saint Mary's University in Winona, returned in April to the orphanage where she and her three sisters were adopted 16 years ago. In Europe studying for a semester, McNamara had become haunted by the fact that her birthplace was so nearby. Her friends had already flown home, but she decided to stay, to find her birthplace and the nuns who raised her.
Standing in the doorway to the orphanage, McNamara didn't recognize Sister Elizabeth. But the nun hadn't forgotten McNamara's striking blue eyes. Sister Elizabeth left and returned with a photo pressed to her chest. She turned it around for McNamara to see. It was McNamara and her three sisters with their adoptive mom 16 years ago.
"I just started crying," McNamara said. "It was equivalent to meeting my real parents."
For the next four hours, the nuns talked with McNamara through a translator -- a teacher from nearby who knew English. She asked questions about the orphanage and the children there. She saw her old room again. And the same 16 narrow stair steps she used to run up and down.
The orphanage hadn't changed much. Photos of past popes hung in the doorway. Children still prayed in the pews of the chapel and made mud pies in the sandbox. The nuns still wore black habits.
But there were differences, too. The older children no longer all sleep in one large room. And the orphanage has computers now.
McNamara has little chance of ever finding her birth parents. The orphanage has no records, and most of what McNamara knows about her parents has come from the memories of the nuns who raised her.
They say McNamara and her sisters were left to them after their mother abandoned the family. Her father cared for the girls for a while, but eventually left them at the orphanage when he could no longer keep up. He visited infrequently, then stopped coming altogether.
McNamara isn't bothered not knowing her father and mother, and she doesn't blame her father for leaving her. He did the responsible thing, she says.
Back at the orphanage, McNamara's visit was coming to an end. She had a plane to catch. She said her goodbyes to the nuns and promised to stay in touch.
"I got back on the bus and wanted to tell everyone," she said, "but no one would understand me."
Consumed by memories
When McNamara got back to Winona in April, she told her friends about the visit. She could hardly believe it herself. But the more she told her story, the more the children and nuns seemed to consume her thoughts. She knew she had to help them out somehow.
"The journey back to Poland changed me," she said. "I just wanted to do something for someone else."
So McNamara spent the next couple of months gathering cards, toys and blankets to send to the children for Christmas. She knows what it's like to have to share gifts with 30 other kids.
Her past few weekends have been consumed in preparation. She and her friends made blankets. They wrapped the presents. They put bells on the packages. And some of the friends even wrote personalized cards for each child and nun -- in Polish.
Nikki Kolupailo, McNamara's 21-year-old roommate, paced around a classroom on the St. Mary's campus last week making sure everything was in order. She was one of the first people to hear McNamara's story. And she has been by her side ever since.
"She seemed whole when she got back," Kolupailo said. "She's just happier. It's like there's a glow to her."
Kolupailo handed off a package to Bailey England, 21, another volunteer and friend of McNamara's.
"Ania has a drive that's so rare in someone her age," England said. "She inspires me every day."
The next step is sending the packages, which McNamara expects will cost more than $1,000.
"It takes a second to change a kid's life," she said. "And a few dollars out of pocket. But it is worth it. We should all be helping others."
McNamara is the first of her three sisters to go back to Poland since the adoption. They plan to all return together some day.
But for now, McNamara wants to concentrate on finishing her marketing and entrepreneur majors at St. Mary's, though, of course, she plans to stay in touch with the nuns and children.
The questions about her past that haunted her for years have mostly been answered.
"I feel that everything I really wanted to know, the orphanage answered it for me," she said. "And now I want to provide those kids with the comfort I have."