MANHATTAN (KSNT)– A Manhattan man unlocking a secret history that dubbed Kansas City the “adoption hub of America,” a history he discovered thanks to his mother.
For six decades, KelLee Parr knew his mom was always on the search for her birth mother after finding out she was adopted. In 1991, Parr gave a research assignment to his students while teaching in Topeka. He was inspired by the project and headed down to the Kanas Historical Society to see if he could find information to help his mom.
Wanda is Parr’s mom. She spent 66 years trying to find out who her birth mother was, but because she was born in Missouri in 1925, and adopted, the records were closed through the state. Another part of her birth was kept quiet because of her mother’s age.
“My mother was born in a place called the Willows Maternity Sanitarium,” Parr said. “There were anywhere from 25,000 to 35,000 young women who went there and had their babies.”
The name Willows Maternity Sanitarium might not ring bells for some people. It was a place in Kansas City, Mo. for unwed mothers, young girls, or women who wanted to put their babies up for adoption.
Parr was able to obtain some information about who might be his long-lost relative from the Kansas Historical Society. Wanda provided him with her birth certificate one Christmas that gave Parr a name and a leg up on his search.
Once he started searching at the Kansas Historical Society, he went through many files and records that could have been related to his maternal grandmother. His search finally paid off. He came across a woman with the same name and birth year as Wanda’s mom, finding out she was from Havana, Kan.
From there he started making phone calls to the post office, then to a resident in Havana, who knew a cousin related to Wanda’s birth mother. Eventually leading one of the calls to a woman in California.
“She was 83 years old,” Parr said. “I didn’t even know if it was the right Leona, but it turned out it was. I sent a letter to her asking her…because I didn’t want my mom to be disappointed. I didn’t even tell her I had even started searching. So, in the process, it turned out that it was her, and she wrote me back.”
Leona is the birth mother of Wanda. She had to give Wanda up for adoption after she got pregnant at 16 years old. Leona stayed at the Willows while she was pregnant. Once she gave birth, Wanda was adopted, and they went their separate ways going 66 years without knowing each other.
They finally all got to meet in person, creating a bond with both Wanda’s adopted family, the maternal side of the family, and even her paternal side. Wanda and Leona had created a bond that lasted for 13 years.
Both have now passed, but Parr is still documenting their journey. In 2017, he published a novel called “My Little Valentine” about the reunion between his mom and grandma. The book explains the Willows Sanitarium and the journey they went through after reuniting.
Surprisingly, he started getting flooded with letters from other people who had a connection to the Willows.
Then, two more books came out of it: “Manson on the Hill” and “More Voices of The Willows and the Adoption Hub of America”.
“It’s helping a lot of people to understand what adoptees go through, and also birth mothers, what they’ve gone through,” Parr said. “In the sacrifice, they gave in giving up their children because a lot of them had no choice. There really wasn’t anything they could do.”
Three books and countless stories later, Parr is helping reunite families thanks to unlocking a secret in Kansas City.
KelLee Parr said the Willows was closed in 1969 and has since been torn down. The stories and journeys, however, are still standing strong.
Parr has also taken an important step for other people in his family. His adopted grandma, Emma, and his father, Lee, both had Alzheimer’s. He’s now a part of the Walk to End Alzheimer’s fundraiser in Manhattan.
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