Hillary Harris was adopted as an infant. She searched for her birth family as an adult, and after many years, her search was incomplete. She knew she had a half sister, and she knew the sister’s name from her adoption file, but she couldn’t find her.
At night, Harris would Google her sister’s name — Dawn Johnson — and scour Facebook photos of the thousands of Dawn Johnsons out there. She would peer into their faces, trying to see if any of them looked like her. Maybe just a little?
Then one day last year, a strange thing happened. A couple moved in next door to the home Harris and her husband own in Eau Claire, Wis. The woman’s name was Dawn, and she was from Greenwood, Wis., the same place Harris’s sister lived, according to the adoption file.
Harris ran to her husband, Lance Harris, who had spent years helping her try to track down her sister.
“I’m, like, Lance! Her name is Dawn! She’s from Greenwood!” Harris recalled in an interview with The Washington Post. “He was, like, ‘No.’ And I was, like, ‘No.’ And we both said that would be funny if she was my sister. Ha ha.”
But Harris couldn’t get the idea of her neighbor Dawn out of her head. She didn’t know Dawn’s last name, but she would see her often, as their two houses share a single driveway.
Harris would watch Dawn from a distance as she and her partner, Kurt Casperson, worked on their fixer-upper. As an introvert, Harris, 31, didn’t chat much with the new neighbors. Also, Dawn, 50, was older than Harris.
“I was always looking at her, thinking, ‘Could it be her?’” Harris said. “I never had the courage to ask. I didn’t want to be nosy and pry into her life.”
About two months went by. The couples would say ‘hello’ in passing but never got to know each other.
Then, last August, Dawn and Kurt got a huge delivery of shingles for their roof. Draped over their delivery in the shared driveway was a large red banner with a name. It said “Johnson.”
Wait. Her neighbor was named Dawn Johnson?
“I was floored,” Harris said. “I was almost speechless. I called Lance right away and said: Her last name is Johnson. That’s Dawn Johnson. It’s got to be her. It’s got to be.”
Her husband told her it was time to approach Dawn Johnson. The clues were adding up that she was probably the woman Harris had been searching for. According to Harris’s adoption file from Catholic Charities, Harris and Dawn Johnson had the same father, a man who died several years earlier, and whom Harris had never met.
“I said, ‘No, I’m not going to go ask her,’” said Harris, afraid of rejection. “What if she never knew about me? What if it’s a secret?”
Lance told her: “If you don’t do it, I’m going to do it right now.”
So that afternoon, the Harrises ambled next door when they saw their neighbors outside. Hillary Harris stood very close to Dawn so she could get a close look at her. It was awkward.
“I go out there and I stand by her and I start talking to her, and I kept looking at her curly hair. I have curly hair,” Harris said. “I looked at her hands; they look just like mine. I have large hands, man hands I call them.”
Harris could sense that her husband was getting agitated that she was not asking the question. But she couldn’t bring herself to do it. The two couples chatted for a minute and then said goodbye. Dawn Johnson went back to her old home in Greenwood for the evening, about an hour’s drive away.
Johnson remembers thinking Harris was staring at her, she told The Post, and she couldn’t figure out why Harris was acting so strangely.
A few hours later, Harris finally got up the nerve. She found Johnson’s cellphone number and texted her for the first time:
“Were you the Loyal Corn Fest queen in 1983?” she asked, referencing a tidbit she had learned about her half sister from her father’s obituary that had been tucked in her adoption file. Harris knew her father’s name was Wayne Clouse.
Johnson’s reply came: LOL why are you asking me that?
Harris typed back a bold question: Who is your birth father?
Johnson wrote: Wayne Clouse, but he unfortunately passed away in 2010.
Harris could barely process it. Her search was finally over.
“I was screaming and freaking out,” Harris said. “Lance was screaming. It was insane.”
In that moment, it clicked for Johnson, too. Johnson was raised by her stepfather and first met her birth father, Clouse, when she was 18. She had never thought about whether Clouse had other children, but it made sense that he did.
Right away, Harris called Johnson. It was Johnson who cut to the quick: “You and me have the same dad, don’t we?”
The long-lost sisters talked and cried for hours on the phone that night.
“I could hardly believe it, since I was never made aware I had a sister out there,” Johnson said.
The next morning, Johnson went by Harris’s house with a card, a bouquet of flowers and all the pictures she had of her birth father. When Harris opened the door, Johnson said, “Hi sis.”
Over the past year, the sisters have become inseparable. “She is the most loving, perfectest human ever,” Harris said about her newfound sister.
Harris never got to meet her birth father. She found her birth mother a few years ago, though only met her once and hasn’t seen her since.
But Johnson is a different story altogether. The two spend time together every day and are rarely apart when they’re not at work.
“We talk every day; we’re 20 feet apart,” Johnson said.
Harris’s daughter Stella, 5, is also good buddies with her aunt. In fact, Stella would go over and play with Johnson — much to Harris’s dismay — before they figured out their bizarre connection.
Now Stella and her aunt spend a lot of time together, and Stella even sleeps at her aunt’s house sometimes. Johnson is more like a grandmother to Stella. Harris’s adoptive mother died when she was 13.
“When I finally met Dawn, it was the missing piece to my puzzle,” Harris said. “She fills so many voids in our lives — she’s like a big sister and mother to me, grandmother to Stella.”
Johnson loves it all.
“If you’d look at Stella and me, everybody says, ‘Oh my goodness, she looks more like her aunt than her mom,’” Johnson said. “It’s almost eerie.”
At first, the sisters kept their story to themselves, taking time to enjoy each other and their giddy excitement at having found one another. But then a friend of Harris’s who styles hair for a local television anchor asked if she could mention the story. Harris agreed, and in recent weeks they have been telling their tale.
“I love sharing it because it’s such a beautiful happy story,” Harris said. “I know a lot of people struggle with adoption things and finding their biological family. But I want to tell them to not give up. Keep looking. Look everywhere. Go look next door. You don’t know what you’ll find.”
This story has been updated to say the women lived next to each other for two months before they discovered they were sisters.