After a tragic separation at childhood, sisters Tessa Ferguson and Lynn Bailey never thought they’d see each other again. However, Tessa turned her years of sadness into curiosity. After posting on Facebook about missing her sister and seeking her whereabouts, a strange “search angel” came into the picture to support Tessa through her search. What happened next was a beautiful twist of fate, full of new clarity and connections. Finally, after four decades, the unimaginable happened.
A cruel memory lingered with Tessa Ferguson from childhood through adulthood. She vividly remembered her baby sister being taken away by a stranger for adoption. Tessa recalled her baby sister crying and reaching for her. There was nothing Tessa could do, though. She was too young and a catastrophe struck her entire family, altering the course of their lives.
It was 1973. Tessa’s dad was working underneath her family’s house. They lived in a cabin on a hillside. Her dad was trying to level the house. Unfortunately, his actions accidentally triggered a gas explosion. The house collapsed on top of him, killing him upon impact. Amazingly, Tessa’s mother was able to rescue all of the children by ushering them out of the house. In so doing, she suffered lethal burns and later passed away in the hospital. The children were now orphans. They were adopted by relatives and non-relatives alike, and spread out across the country. Tessa was 4. Her little sister, Raylene, was just over one year old.
Tessa had no hope of reuniting with her beloved siblings ever again. She said, “I thought I would never see her again. I thought I would take that memory of her to my grave.” While years of sadness were ahead, Tessa had no idea that suddenly all of that would change. Hope was on the horizon—if only she knew it.
The Ferguson children were scattered about. Her brother, Frank, moved to Ohio to live with one their uncles. Her sister, Dena, moved in with one of their grandmothers in Kentucky. Tessa, Becky and Raylene, the three youngest girls, were put into foster care. Tessa and Becky were adopted together, but Raylene was separated from them. This was an added trauma. Tessa said, “It left a deep emotional scar, seeing my little sister crying and going out the door.”
Tessa and Becky were adopted and moved to a new home in Indiana. She was adopted when she was five-years-old. Since Tessa and Becky were so young, many details of their tragic circumstances were kept from them. They didn’t know much at all about their mom and dad, only that they met a tragic fate in a freak accident. They also didn’t remember how many older siblings they had, since they were so young at the time of the accident. Tessa said, “But we didn't know how many or where they all were.”
When Tessa was growing up, she had doubts and anxieties about her childhood. She grew paranoid that her adoptive parents were lying about the fire to cover up the fact that her parents didn’t want her. While this fear wasn’t rational, she was trying to find ways to understand her history. She described her thought process: “It was one of those childhood fears.”
Despite her anxieties, from childhood to marriage Tessa was optimistic and athletic. She married her childhood sweetheart, Barry Ferguson. Together, they had three beautiful children. Tessa found work as a hairstylist and volunteered as an emergency medical technician—perhaps inspired by her tragic childhood. Despite being separated from so many of her other siblings, she stayed in touch with Becky.
Tessa continued to have nightmares, even as an adult. Her childhood haunted her. She said, “That image was always in the back of my mind. I'd had nightmares about it all my life; I'd hear a baby crying, calling to me.”
Later in Tessa’s adult life, a mysterious newspaper advertisement changed everything. Barry’s dad, Tessa’s father-in-law, saw an advertisement in their local paper. Apparently, a family in Kentucky was searching for sisters named Tessa and Becky. To make the advertisement even stranger, the Kentucky family said that Tessa and Becky lived in southern Indiana. This was true. While Tessa said, “the ad came from out of nowhere,” she was immediately intrigued.
At first, she was afraid. “I told my husband I didn't want to go. What would I find out? I didn't know who these people were. There's a fear of what you will learn," she said. Despite her fear—stemming from the tragic fire, separation and uncertainty—she was determined to see if there was any truth in the advertisement. Tessa went to Saul, Kentucky with her husband, daughters and sister for support. As they approached Saul, Tessa said she felt “every emotion known to man, rolled into one.”
In Saul, she met one of her older sisters, named Dena. She also met an older brother, a man named Frank. Frank was old enough at the time of the fire to remember much of their family’s history. Tessa said, “They bombarded me with so much information. It was overwhelming; I didn't know what was real. A few hours into it, I was like, 'Enough, enough — I need time to absorb this.'” There was so much to process. After years of wondering, Tessa’s life was clarifying. She learned that there were five siblings in total. No one knew where the youngest, Raylene, was. Tessa also learned the names of her parents: Frank and Letha Williams.
While in Kentucky, Tessa saw her parents’ graves. She described the emotional intensity of the experience, saying, “It was like running at full speed into a brick wall — it hit me so hard that they were dead, that everything I had been told was true. I cried until I didn't have an ounce of energy left.” To add to the intensity, Tess also saw the land where her family home once stood—before the fire. She stood on the hill and thought to herself, “This was our view.”
Another surprise was waiting for Tessa. One of her relatives showed her an old photo of her whole family. She said, “It was the first photo I'd seen from [that period of] my childhood.” She looked close and noticed that her mother was pregnant when the photo was taken. This meant that she was expecting at the time of the fire. Tessa was floored with grief.
After reuniting with so much of her family, Tessa was grateful for the opportunity to meet more of her siblings. Still, she was overwhelmed by the sad fates her parents met. She grew depressed. She said, “I battled some major depression. That was when I started really grieving my parents' death.” While she kept in touch with her newfound sister and brother through the years, she felt a missing piece: Raylene. She was out there, and Tessa wanted to find her.
So, Tessa began a search. Thanks to a Facebook post saying, “Help me find my sister,” Tessa found answers. It was a long and emotional search, but she was prepared. She heard from a ton of people because she made her post public. She heard from neighbors, friends and some crazy people. Most interestingly, a woman who called herself a “search angel” was a vital.
When the “search angel” first reached out to Tessa, she was convinced that the “angel” was just another crazy person. Tessa said, “I heard from a lot of crackpots. You don't know who to trust.” However, she decided to hear her out. The “search angel” turned out to be a kind woman named Charlene Summers. Charlene spent her free time trying to reunite separated relatives and loved ones. However, when Charlene started asking Tessa lots of questions, she was worried that the “search angel” was just a scam. Tessa said, “She started asking all these personal questions, like 'When were you born?' I thought, What a sicko; this person is trying to take advantage of me in a vulnerable situation.”
Eventually, Tessa made a more detailed post about her search for Raylene, and urged her friends and family to share the post. She said, “I was afraid it wouldn't work — but I was also afraid it would work. I didn't know what I would find. What if I found her dead?” Also, she wondered if she was endangering her family by making so much of their information public. Despite the risks, Tessa chose to make herself vulnerable. After all, she had to find her baby sister.
Tessa’s husband was worried, though. She said, “He worried we would hear from a bunch of nutcases.” However, he was supportive. Tessa was really gratified when her sister Dena from Kentucky expressed excitement.
Not even a week had passed, and Tessa began hearing from a ton of people. It was more than a full-time job for Tessa; it was a full-time commitment. Two replies were especially helpful. One woman, a friend of Tessa’s parents, reached out. Another woman wrote saying she took care of Raylene right after the fire. She shared old photos and postcards. Tessa was “obsessed.” she said, “My 14-year-old son started getting tired of fixing his own dinner. My husband never complained, but he was cleaning up after the kids. Laundry was piling up. Life was going on in the house without me. I was always busy wading through messages.” Something had to give.
“Search Angel” was still in the picture, but Tessa didn’t know. Charlene said many people are skeptical about her because of how common internet fraud is. Still, her intentions were pure. She said, “I love the feeling I get when I find answers that change people's lives. Not everyone is sunshine and flowers — some people just don't want to face the past. But for those that do, I'm happy to help.”
Charlene is a mother of three and works at a small karaoke business she started. She admitted that she was “dirt poor,” but was motivated to help others. She said, “If I can give someone a life-changing gift, I will. I'm a karma girl.” After following Tessa’s Facebook posts, Charlene began looking for a girl named Raylene from around Saul, Kentucky. The was one major roadblock, though: when Raylene was adopted, she likely took another last name. To make matters more complicated, her adoptive parents could have renamed her altogether.
Tessa started texting with Charlene again. This fed her obsession, and made her incredibly overwhelmed. Tessa said, “My life became 100% consumed. I started to feel mentally exhausted. I cried every day for a while.” Something had to give, soon. Her mental wellbeing was at stake.
So, Tessa took to Facebook again. She posted asking if anyone from Saul could scout out old newspaper articles about her parents or the fire. Many people were clued into the saga at this point. Tessa gratefully remarked: “A woman spent an entire day at the library searching through microfilm.” After a day of searching, the woman sent Tessa a message: “OMG.” She found an article about Tessa’s dad, Frank.
The article depicted Frank powerfully. Its headline? “Saul Man Dies in Explosion.” The article said, “Williams was working under his home about 1 P.M. Friday when a gas line apparently broke, causing an explosion.” Seeing her family’s narrative in print gave Tessa added confidence. While tragic, so much of her memory was uncertain. Now, she had evidene. She said, “To see that story was just incredible. Stories change when they're passed down through families. But seeing it in print, it made everything that much more real.”
Meanwhile, Charlene found a birth record for a girl named “Rae Lynn” who was born in Saul, and still lived in Kentucky. Tessa got her hopes up—way up. She said, “It was like when you strike a match and it bursts into flame — that's how I felt.” She reached out to Rae Lynn, writing what Tessa called a “rambling message with many typos.” She said, “I sounded crazy!” Rae Lynn thought so, too. She didn’t think they were sisters because she wasn’t adopted. Still, Tessa convinced Rae Lynn to take a DNA test.
Tessa had a sinking feeling when they met up for the DNA testing. She said, “We were nice to each other, but neither of us felt a deep connection. Still, I was holding out hope.” They took swabs to the insides of their cheeks and sent them off for DNA analysis in a lab in New Mexico. After meeting Rae Lynn, Tessa said, “I was checking my e-mail every hour. I finally got the e-mail at 4:15 p.m. I couldn't look at it — I made my husband read it. He told me she was not my sister.” After everything, a disappointment was not what Tessa needed.
As she reeled from the disappointment, Tessa said, “I felt absolutely devastated. It felt like I had lost my sister all over again. I needed some time to recover before I could dive back in.” Charlene was committed to helping Tessa. And Tessa was grateful for that. Charlene put extra work in while Tessa tended to her emotions. Charlene said, “I made a promise. And I had to keep it.”
So, Charlene went back to websites like ancestry.com. There, she found a Rae Lynn Bailey who was born in the right year and town. That Rae Lynn Bailey had a Facebook page under “Lynn Bailey” and reportedly lived in Gainesville, Florida. Charlene sent her a Facebook message. She said, “She immediately told me off. She said, 'I'm not sure what your game is, but I am not interested!'” Thankfully, Lynn was curious enough to hear Charlene out. It turned out that Lynn had questions of her own, too.
After Charlene recapped with Tessa, Tessa decided to reach out to her potential sister. After seeing photos, Tessa was amazed by their similarities. She said, “I felt an immediate connection.” Her husband was protective, though. He said, “I thought, Here we go again. We'll need a box of Kleenex in three days when she's not the right one.” After continued correspondence and eventually getting DNA tests, it was time for answers. The results arrived weeks later, via email. Tessa lost over five pounds because of her anxiety. On the day of the email arriving, Tessa said, “I was on the edge of the sofa, biting my nails.” They were sisters indeed.
To celebrate and reconnect, Lynn traveled to Indiana to meet her long-lost sister. They met four decades after their initial and painful separation. The sisters hugged, laughed and cried. They looked at each other in amazement, tracking their similarities. Tessa said, “Well, hi!” Lynn said, “I can’t believe this is happening.” Tessa described their reunion, saying, “It's like your best friend who you go a few months without talking to…then you get together and it's like no time has elapsed.”
Ever since reuniting, Tessa and Lynn have stayed in touch as much as possible. Tessa said, “We e-mail every day and call on weekends.” They’ve also traveled to Kentucky to spend time with more of their siblings. After Lynn visited Saul, Kentucky, she said, “I feel complete now, knowing where I was born and where my parents are buried. I'm proud of the fact that we all found our way back to each other after 40 years.” Tessa invited Charlene to a family reunion, saying, “It's like she's part of the family.” Now that Tessa has reunited with her beloved sister, she deleted her Facebook. She will live happily in the present moment, knowing the whole truth about her family. She said, “We have a chance to create a whole new life, a whole new history.”