Juanita Haugabook had an important message for her family: “I’m alive,” she said in a video. “I’m down here in Fort Lauderdale. Just get in contact with me.”
It had been more than 25 years since Haugabook, now 49, left her six siblings in Hartford, Connecticut, and “never looked back.”
“I was hurt and angry, and I just wanted to get away,” she said, saying the large family had a falling out over finances after their mother died on Thanksgiving Day in 1981.
But when Haugabook, who has been homeless on and off for years, was asked to record a “miracle message” — a recording meant to reunite those who are homeless with their loved ones — she jumped at the chance.
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“I needed to see them,” she said. “I needed to know they are OK.”
In the message she rattled off her phone number, hoping someone from the family would call her.
The message — made possible through San Diego-based Miracle Messages — worked.
With the help of 17-year-old volunteer Riley Deitado, Haugabook’s message found its way to her sister Patricia.
"After I heard her story, I went on Facebook right away to try to find her family," said Deitado, who met Juanita through a Fort Lauderdale church that the Miracle Messages founder was working with. "It felt really good to be able to reconnect them. She really appreciated it."
When Patricia Haugabook first saw the message she wasn’t sure if it was real.
“At first I thought it was a gimmick,” she said.
After hearing the message, she shared the link with her brother John Wesley Haugabook Jr.
“It was extremely emotional for me,” he said. “We have been looking for her for so long.”
Jaunita Haugabook was 21 when she got on a Greyhound bus and headed out of town. She said money, drugs and other disagreements left her feeling alone.
She moved to South Florida and struggled. She was in and out of jail, on and off the streets and struggling to stay sober. She worked at times, but never remained at the same job for long.
Meanwhile, her family never forgot about her.
“There was always a piece of us missing,” said Patricia Haugabook, who has spoken to her sister almost every day since she got the message. “I felt in my heart she was still alive.”
Through the years, Juanita Haugabook’s siblings — who all stayed in the Connecticut area — tried to find her. They knew she was in Florida, but didn’t know where.
Miracle Messages founder Kevin Adler said seeing this family reunite is exactly why he does what he does. Adler began the company in honor of his uncle who suffered from schizophrenia and was on and off the streets for 30 years.
“Sometimes all it takes is a little push,” he said. Adler works with homeless outreach centers in South Florida and California. He hopes to expand.
“There is definitely a need,” Adler said.
For Juanita Haugabook, being able to talk to her family again has been a “blessing.” She wants to see her 15 nieces and nephews and meet her grandnieces and grandnephews. Hopefully an in-person reunion will happen soon, she said.
“It’s been too long,” she said choking back tears. “I need to hug them.”
Patricia Haugabook couldn’t agree more.
“I just want to hold her and tell her I love her,” she said. “We need her home.”