A lifetime before Nicole Culverhouse was a Master Sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, she was a little girl in Colombia, playing in the park with her brother as her parents worked nearby. Her brother ran to go get a drink but she didn’t want to go with him so she waited outside. A woman in a black dress saw her alone and took her away.
Culverhouse would be brought to an orphanage about an hour away on December 1, 1975 at the age of four, where her hair was cut, her name was changed — and within a month — she was adopted by a Polish, German, Russian family from the United States.
She says she has lived a wonderful life with her family and now with her husband, but she never forgot about what happened and the desire to find her biological family always burned inside her.
“Since I was four when I was kidnapped I always remembered the story,” Culverhouse told NBC Latino. “I always wanted to go back but I just lacked the opportunity, the money, the courage — all of the above.”
The courage came in the form of a Facebook group called Adopted from Colombia, which Culverhouse stumbled upon one night in June 2011 when she was stationed in Korea. There she met other adoptees who were in search of their biological families.
“This group was a network where Colombian adoptees shared their story, all with the same mission and it inspired me to go back,” she says. “Through that forum we learned that the 70 year anniversary of the orphanage was coming up and a bunch of us said, ‘Ok let’s make that our excuse to go together.’”
Venturing to Colombia led Culverhouse on an exhilarating and at times crushing emotional journey to find her family.
She called See Colombia Travel agency and asked for a listing of all of the parks in a one-hour radius of the Casa De Madre y el Niño orphanage.
The woman on the other end, Marcela, who would become her partner during her odyssey, said, “Do you know what you’re asking of me?”
“I’m a woman of God,” Culverhouse answered. “Of strong faith and God is going to show me where to go.”
With a documentary crew in tow, a Chinese media outlet in Colombia that was following her story, Marcela, and friends from the Facebook group, Culverhouse tried to find her birth certificate. Then she found out her birth certificate was a fake.
Eventually she would be contacted through email by a woman who believed Culverhouse’s real name might be Viviani.
“I traveled to Perservancia and went to the churches there to search for baptism records on myself and my brother,” Culverhouse said. “I even walked through the streets with a pencil sketch of me as a child that I had a street artist draw to see if anyone knew the story.”
When she met the family, however, she was met with heartbreak.
It wasn’t her family. They had lost their daughter in 1992 and she was kidnapped in 1975. The mother of the younger missing girl had never gotten over the loss – she was institutionalized and died four years later.
Beaten down and emotionally spent, Culverhouse was ready to quit. She left to Cartagena, Colombia for what would be a vacation. But Spanish-language TV station RCN ran her story and she was contacted by a cousin and brother-in-law via Facebook. She was hesitant to believe this could be the end of her painstaking journey – but then they sent photos.
“They included pictures,” Culverhouse says, savoring this part of the story. “A cousin of mine who could literally be my twin.”
She headed to Bogota and met her mother, a reunion more than 36 years in the making.
“She just kept thanking God,” Culverhouse says. “She was saying it’s a miracle. She said she knew something was going to happen because she was thinking even more so about me. She knew it in her heart.”
As she met her father, brother, aunts and uncles, and cousins coming out of the woodwork, one thing was clear. It was time to celebrate.
“Those people can party, even the little kids,” she says. “They put on salsa from 11 in the morning to the next day. They were teaching me how to be Latino.”
Culverhouse is taking Spanish lessons now, but when she met her family, they passed around her iPhone using it to translate what they wanted to say to each other.
“Everyone is writing to me now,” she says. “I spend two to three hours a day cutting and pasting to Google translate.”
Her husband, who was instrumental in pushing her to continue the search, told her family that she would be back in Colombia for the holidays.
When they return in December the family is going to baptize her little cousin and Culverhouse and her husband will be the god parents.
She thanks her friend Molly, who set up the Adopted from Colombia Facebook page. Molly found her mother during the trip and Culverhouse was able to hug her too.
“Coincidentally she lived in the same town a couple of blocks away,” she says.
After her ordeal and triumph, Culverhouse is excited to be a motivational speaker and an advocate for adoptees.
“My own father was so distraught about the kidnapping that he couldn’t handle it and left Colombia to live in Venezuela,” she says. “I have an incredible American family, I lived a wonderful life, but my family in Colombia was destroyed. They were praying for me to return.”
Now that their prayers have been answered and Culverhouse is learning Spanish, they will be able to communicate a bit more when she visits in December. But she isn’t worried if her Spanish isn’t perfect.
“Smiles and hugs,” she says. “Those are universal.”
Edgar Zuniga at the NBC News Atlanta bureau contributed to this story.
Watch video of the reunion below: