Meet Cheryl Durbin, 30, game-show whiz and family gumshoe. Three years ago Durbin, a Whittier woman, appeared on "Password" to finance her driving ambition: to locate her family from whom she had been separated when she and her twin sister were placed in a foster home as toddlers.
But after Durbin won $11,000 and announced on the show her plans to hire a private investigator, a viewer sent her a letter saying she hardly had to spend a dime. She could find her relatives by writing to the Social Security Administration in Baltimore and asking for assistance.
Durbin saved the money and pulled out a pen and pad. Several weeks ago she ended her search, finding the last stepbrother. Durbin said her family--including two brothers, two sisters, two stepbrothers and one stepsister--is bigger than she ever imagined.
Through letters and telephone calls, she is slowly piecing together the fragments of her roots. She keeps pictures of her brothers and sisters in a photo album and a portrait of her mother, who died in 1969, in a polished wood frame.
Her brothers and sisters, mostly scattered throughout New England, call her the family detective. Durbin said she is just happy to have a family to call her own.
The siblings were separated by state officials in the early 1960s when her parents could no longer care for them. "They were both drinking, and my father was gambling away his paycheck," she said.
Durbin said that after she grew up and moved to California, she remained in contact with her twin sister. But as years went by, she started thinking more and more about her other brothers and sisters.
Finding her lost family was not an easy task. To get past square one with the Social Security officials, she had to provide names and ages.
Durbin said she traveled to Rhode Island, where she grew up, and found one of her first foster parents. The woman remembered the name and approximate age of one of Durbin's brothers.
Social Security workers in the spring of 1986 located a man named Paul McLarey who matched the description. They sent him a letter with one simple message: Write Cheryl Durbin.
"At first he thought he was wanted by the government," Durbin said. But soon he sent a letter back: "I don't know who you are, but call me."
Durbin stayed up until midnight one night leaving messages on the man's answering machine.
At 3 a.m. he called.
"I had all these things planned to say to make sure it was him," Durbin said. But all was lost with the moment. "I think I'm your sister," she told him.
At first he was shocked and surprised, then he mentioned that he vaguely remembered having two younger twin sisters. He told her that her parents were both dead.
McLarey put Durbin in touch with a brother and a sister, and on July 22, 1986, they held a family reunion in Rhode Island. There Durbin learned that she had two stepbrothers and a stepsister.
"I knew I had brothers and sisters out there, I just never thought I'd find so many," Durbin said. "I keep asking, 'Is there going to be more?' "
Early this year, Durbin decided to try to find the rest of her family, who were said to be living in El Paso.
Durbin used directory assistance, found the number for her stepsister and called. Again shock and surprise.
In May, Durbin traveled to Texas to meet her stepsister, who told her that one of her stepbrothers had died.
Durbin later discovered that her other stepbrother, living in Massachusetts, has leukemia. "I just received a letter from him yesterday," Durbin said in an interview earlier this week. She hopes to visit him soon.
Durbin said her family has come up with a word to describe the family reunion. "We called it 'shappy,' " she said. "It means a combination of shock and happiness. To find them all now has just been a dream for me. After all these years, we're getting to know each other."