When Ethel Shiancoe shared her life story with two strangers she met on the Internet, she wasn't sure what to expect. Who were they? Where did they live? Was she right to trust them?
When the strangers promised to help find her father - a Dutch man who abandoned Shiancoe's mother before Shiancoe was born - she was shocked. If they found him, would they then demand an exorbitant fee?
But after years of wondering about her father, Shiancoe, a 55-year-old social worker from Laurel, was ready to take a chance.
"I think I deserve to know my roots," she said recently. "I have always wanted to know where I came from."
In the end, Shiancoe became close friends with the people who helped her - one in Baltimore County, the other in Europe. Her bond with them is strong today even though her relationship with the father they helped her find remains unresolved.
"I am the winner here," Shiancoe said. "I have two new friends."
Jackie van Lammeren - a Sam's Club employee from Nottingham - and Charles van Reijsen - a Dutch citizen and friend of van Lammeren's parents, who also are Dutch - were the strangers who would become friends.
Van Lammeren, 43, was trolling the Internet in December looking for a Christmas present for one of her five sons when she stumbled upon a Web site that features Dutch goods as well as links to Dutch message boards. Shiancoe's posting on one of them - "Looking for my father" - intrigued van Lammeren.
"I was leery at first," van Lammeren said. "I don't talk to people on the Internet I don't know."
Shiancoe's request for help was compelling. And for van Lammeren, who had been pondering her life's purpose after a car accident, the project seemed like a godsend. Van Lammeren responded, and the two women were soon e-mailing regularly. Shiancoe shared with van Lammeren what she knew of her father, how he'd come to Robertsport, a coastal city in Liberia in Western Africa, to run an import-export business, and met her mother.
Shiancoe said her mother was six months pregnant with her when her father left Liberia to attend a funeral in Holland. Her mother waited several years for the man she called her husband - he paid a dowry but they never married - to return to her, but he never did.
Eventually, her mother married another man. Shiancoe split her time between her mother's new family and an American missionary and Liberian school principal who also cared for her.
Shiancoe left Liberia in 1980 and lived in Birmingham, England, and New York City before settling in Maryland in 1981. Her sons, Jon, 28, an engineer, and Visanthe, 24, a tight end with the New York Giants, were raised in Silver Spring and Laurel.
In her e-mails, Shiancoe told van Lammeren that she ached to visit her father, if only once. She told her that she didn't know whether he was still alive. All she knew was his name, his approximate age, the Dutch firm he represented in Liberia, and some idea of where his family lived.
Van Lammeren passed on the information to van Reijsen, 59, a retired purchasing manager who was looking for something to keep him busy. Van Reijsen searched the Dutch telephone directory for people with the same last name as Shiancoe's father - Shiancoe is her married name - and started making calls. Eventually, he reached the man's sister-in-law at her home in Rotterdam and she supplied an address and a telephone number.
"I think I made up a story that I was looking for a friend of the family," van Reijsen said, adding that he had to be careful what he said in case Shiancoe's father had not told his family about his daughter. "It took about a half-hour, but she gave me the information I needed."
Van Reijsen also tracked down a half-brother of Shiancoe's in the Netherlands and sent information about both men in an e-mail to van Lammeren. Van Lammeren forwarded the e-mail to Shiancoe, who received it on Christmas morning.
"It was the best Christmas present I have ever received," Shiancoe said.
Shiancoe writes e-mails to her half-brother on a daily basis, she said. He sends her poems and photos and has told her about her father and two other half-brothers.
Van Reijsen and Shiancoe said the half-brother went to Shiancoe's father, who is old and frail, and told him about her, but he refused to acknowledge his daughter.
Shiancoe said she was sad but not surprised. "I have no animosity toward him," she said.
Shiancoe and van Lammeren met for the first time in February. They met again last week at a restaurant in White Marsh. This time they were joined by van Reijsen, who was visiting from the Netherlands. Over lunch, they shared fond memories of their search. They laughed as van Reijsen recounted how he had used his charm and wit to get personal information out of strangers.
"I like these kinds of things," van Reijsen said. "It's a challenge for me."
Shortly after van Lammeren and van Reijsen found Shiancoe's family, they also helped a Tennessee man named Tom Mays reconnect with his two adult children in Holland. Mays said his ex-wife, who was Dutch, took the children to Holland when they were young and never returned. He said his search was complicated by language barriers and address changes. He calls van Lammeren his "search angel."
"That lady, she doesn't expect anything at all in return," Mays, 63, said in a telephone interview from his home in Bulls Gap, Tenn. "I have never met her, but she is like extended family."
Van Lammeren and van Reijsen said they were happy to help. They did not ask for money to cover the costs of the searches. For van Reijsen, the searches represented a sort of payback to American troops who liberated Europe from the Nazis during World War II. Van Lammeren said the work helped to pull her out of a slump that had left her questioning her self-worth.
"I do feel much better about myself now that I have done this for these people," she said. "It worked out so well. These people are happy now. A part of their lives has been fulfilled now, too."