Local woman finds family on Guatemala mission trip

NEW ULM – In less than a month, on Oct. 8, long time resident Dani Winter will marry her fiance Kevin Andrews. However, in the midst planning the wedding Winter decided after 25 years it was time to visit her birthplace in Guatemala. Before the trip was over she would reunited a family she never knew.

Winter was born in Cobn, Guatemala in 1991. Not long after she was born, Duane and Gina Winter adopted her and she has lived in the United States and New Ulm ever since.

“I’ve just always wanted to go back,” Winter said, but she did not want to go back as a tourist. Hearing stories from her parents and reading up on Guatemala, she knew many people were struggling in her country of origin. “I wanted to help out,” she explained. Winter decided to join a mission trip to Guatemala. On August 12, 2016 she her fianc Kevin traveled with a Florida based group called Missionary Ventures International. She chose to travel with this group since they made regular trips to her birthplace in Cobn, Guatemala. This was the first mission trip she had found that visited Cobn.

Winter and the rest of the missionaries spent a week in Central Guatemala near San Cristbal, which is four hours from the country’s capital Guatemala City. San Cristbal was only an hour away from Cobn.

The first day in Guatemala had a strong effect on Winter. She admitted the emotions she felt on returning were so overwhelming she became physically ill. A phone call to her mother in the United States and reassurance from her fiance calmed her nerves. By Monday she was ready to begin her mission work.

The missionaries’ first task was to help paint a school paint a school in San Cristbal. The school was an all purpose education facility. Many of the student attending the school were adults who never completed their formal education. Winter said many area youths also volunteered to help complete the project. The community involvement in Guatemala was strong, but often a lack of resources created problems.

Later in the week the missionaries helped plant fruit trees in a mountain village and teach Bible School in the afternoon. Many of the villages in Guatemala are built in the mountains, which makes travel a challenge, but the view is magnificent.

“It was very beautiful there,” Winter said. “I’ve seen mountains here, but it just doesn’t compare. Pictures do not do it justice.”

On Aug. 18, the mission visited a re-nutrition center. The clinic was set aside for children suffering from malnutrition. Hunger continues to be a problem in Guatemala. The purpose of these centers is to get children up to their proper weight and send them back to their families, but sometimes kids are sent back because the family simple cannot provide adequate nutrition. The missionaries gave supplies to the center, but also held the infants separated from their families and gave them attention. For Winter, it was a reminder of how different things could have been had she not been adopted.

“I could have been in that situation too,” she said.

Later the same day the group visited the hospital in Cobn in which Winter was born. They gave supplies and medicine to mothers and children staying in the hospital.

“The hospitals are nothing like we have here,” Winter said. The facilities are outdated and crowded. Patients do not have separate rooms. Winter described it as chaotic.

“Seeing what the hospital is like now and thinking about how it was 25 years ago when I was born. It was kind of a lot.”

From the beginning Winter thought about trying to track down members of her biological family, but the odds were slim considering the adoption happened between two countries. Dani’s adoptive mother, Gina Winter, saved all the paperwork and information from the adoption. Gina was able to e-mail her daughter basic birth information from Guatemala, which included her birth mother’s name. The mission host family went to great efforts to assist her in tracking down information.

Even before visiting the hospital in Cobn, Winter learned the unfortunate news her birth mother died two years earlier.

“I wanted them to know I was okay. I was blessed with the upbringing I had. My parents were wonderful. That was kind of another hard thing when I learned she passed away. I wanted her to be able to see that.” However; Winter would soon learn she still had family in Guatemala.

While at the Cobn hospital Winter checked through the records for any additional information, but the files were limited. Hospital policy calls for the burning of records after eight years. The hospital did provide a book recording births from 1991. From this book Winter confirmed she was the last of six children born to her mother. A government employee at the hospital used social media to find further information on her biological mom and found a death announcement. At the time of her mom’s death she had been living in a town only five miles from the mission host city of San Cristbal.

Winter, her fianc and mission leader traveled to the town to see if they could pick up the trail. Several neighbors in the community remembered her mom, but few knew her well. At one point they learned from a neighbor they were standing in the spot her mom died. From this same neighbor Winter learned one of her mother’s daughters “Julia” had been in the area a week ago.

Winter’s search change to tracking down this sister. They asked a series of people and eventually found a woman who knew Julia through her son. This complete stranger ended up walking Winter to a home her sister frequented. Once there Winter encountered a 13-year-old boy who turned out to be her nephew. Her nephew managed to find his mom and for the first time in 25 years Dani Winter was able to meet her biological sister Julia.

There was a language barrier between the sister, a translator was needed, but Julia remembered Dani, calling her “the one that went to the states,” Julia was able to contact her other sisters. The next day Dani met another sister Evelina and would be contacted by a third sister even later.

Winter was unable to make contact with her biological brothers. One of her brothers passed a way from meningitis a few years back. The other brother is out the country and none of the sisters have been able to reach him yet. Winter thinks he is living in Brazil.

“It was a lot to take in,” Winter said. “I didn’t even know I had siblings until I got the sheet of paper from my mom.”

All Winter’s siblings were aware their youngest sibling lived in America with an adopted family, but none of them expected to meet her. Her sisters were overjoyed to learn she was safe and happy living in the United States.

“They were crying and couldn’t believe it,” she said. “My niece said ‘It’s like a movie!'”

Her newfound sister, Evelina, described the event as proof miracles can happen. The odds of finding birth family was low. Guatemala has a population of 15 million. Cobn alone has 250,000 people, but somehow Dani beat the odds.

Her sisters were able show pictures of their mother and shed light her decision to give up Dani for adoption.

“It was very hard for their mother to give up her daughter but life was complicated in Guatemala,” Winter said. “She was unable to raise a sixth child.” Winter’s adoptive parents had long told her the same story and now her biological sisters were saying the same. “She did love me very much, but that is why she did what she did.”

In Guatemala, family is extremely important. In the short time she spent in the country, Winter saw and experienced this first hand.

“Family is absolutely everything'” she said. “They are always with their family. Many of the families live together forever, which is another reason they are so welcoming.”

Winter returned to the United States on Aug. 20. She remains in contact with her new found sisters through social media. The sisters have shared photos of their children.

“Its funny to see on facebook how much they say my daughter and I look like my mom. It kind of feels good,” Winter said. “Growing up, all your friends say you look like so-and-so, but I never really had that. It’s cool to have that feeling.”

Sometime in the next few years Winter plans to return to Guatemala to spend more time with her sisters, possible on another mission trip. “Twenty-five is a long time,” she said. “We’ve got 25 years of catching up to do. You can’t do that in a few hours.”