Half a dozen strangers sat nervously in a circle of chairs Wednesday as the support group meeting got under way.
"Let's go around the room and introduce ourselves," said Charice Leabo, the group leader, nodding toward the young woman on her left.
"My name is Alison," she began, "And I'm an adoptee."
Then she laughed. "This is weird. I feel like I'm at an AA meeting or something." Everyone else laughed too, and the ice was instantly broken.
The group was Adoptee Awareness, a support organization started by Leabo, 19, of Tustin, an adoptee whose birth mother contacted her in August, 1988. Wednesday's meeting was the group's first.
"I just wanted to be able to sit down and talk to someone who says, 'I understand,' and you know they really do understand," Leabo said. "My best friend is a good listener and I talk to her a lot, but she's not adopted and she can't really know what it's like."
Leabo was "found," in the parlance of adoption, while some in the group are "searching." They don't know who their birth parents are, but they are trying to find out. Others aren't sure they want to know. As one young man put it, "I'm just lost."
"I was adopted at 3 months," Leabo said. "A lot of times I felt I wasn't part of the family. I knew that I wasn't blood, that I didn't look like anybody. It was difficult for me to accept who I was.
"I was angry at the world, and angry at my birth mother. Then I realized she was really unselfish. She was unmarried, by herself, didn't have any money. If she had kept me, she wouldn't have been able to take care of me."
After she got over the anger, Leabo says, she didn't search because "I was so scared of hurting my adoptive mom. My (adoptive) father died when I was 13, and after that it was just the two of us. Then 6 years to the day after my father died, my phone rang, and it was Ilene (Wood). I got so excited I couldn't breathe.
"The minute I saw her I felt so complete. I saw where I came from. It was like looking in the mirror." Leabo now lives with Wood, and she says her adoptive mother, who has moved to Missouri, accepts the situation and no longer feels threatened.
Alison Hicks, 24, of Anaheim only recently began her search. "All my life I knew I was an adoptee. But I was curious; I wanted to know what my mother looks like," she said. "My parents have always been very supportive, but they said, 'If you're going to do it, we'd rather you wait until you're out on your own. So I decided about 2 months ago that I would start."
"I'm not looking for a new family," she said. "I'm just curious." On the advice of a search consultant from Concerned United Birthparents (CUB), a separate support group, Hicks filed papers requesting information from the Orange County adoption agency that placed her. She has an appointment next week to meet with an agency worker and get whatever information is available.
"I felt like the first part of my life was never explained to me," said Chuck Whitmore, 21, of Temple City, who spent more than 3 years searching for his birth parents.
"I went to the hospital where I was born, to the agency in L.A. that placed me. I even went to the closest church to the hospital and looked through their baptismal records. I got so depressed when I could find nothing at all.
"I just wanted to know what they looked like. I wasn't sure I wanted to know more. I remember when I was 16 and I realized that my girlfriend looked like her brother and her dad. I thought that was neat, and I wondered if there was somebody out there I looked like."
That's a common feeling among adoptees. "You see people who do look like you," Leabo said. "I remember before Ilene found me, wherever I went, to the beach, to Disneyland, to a restaurant, I would see people and wonder, 'Could that be them?' "
Eventually, Whitmore learned from the agency that his mother had given him up because "she thought it was more important for me to have a two-parent home." After that, he said, "I went from just wanting to see a picture to wanting to meet this lady.
"She loved me enough to give me up. That's a very strong love, I think. And it's kind of sad that we had to be apart. I'm glad I found her," he said. His birth mother, who lives in Orange County, still has not told her own parents about her unwed pregnancy, he said.
Whitmore's 19-year-old brother, Randy, also adopted, says he isn't sure how much he wants to know about his own birth parents. He didn't even know about Chuck's search until the rest of the family was told, 9 months after Chuck and his birth mother first met in 1987 at a hotel near Disneyland.
"I've got the greatest parents," Chuck said. "I didn't want them to feel I was leaving them."