Orlando FL Woman Reunited with Greek Family After 60 Years

Denise Madlin was born in Greece in May 1958 to a 38-year-old widow from a small village on the outskirts of the western seaport of Nafpaktos, the youngest of 7 children. The woman gave Denise to a priest shortly after her birth. What the priest did immediately after that is unclear, but Denise wound up in the Vrefokomeio Athinon (Athens Municipal Orphanage) some 150 miles away, and was subsequently adopted by non-Greek American parents. While hers was not the happiest of childhoods, Denise tried to make the most of it. 

"I raised myself Greek," she says, "insisting on going to the local Greek Orthodox church. I was known there as 'the little girl with no parents'."

Her parents would drop her off on Sunday mornings and then would return to pick her up when it was convenient. Sometimes she waited alone for hours on the church steps before they returned. As she grew older, Denise participated in Greek dancing and organized groups, like the Maids of Athena, helped with the annual Greek festival and learned to cook Greek food. But like most adoptees, she longed to find her roots and the Greek family from which she had been separated so many years before. 

For more than 20 years, she tried various avenues to find her family. But as in the cases of many adoptees, she was scammed by multiple people in both the US and Greece, some of whom claimed to be Greek adoptees themselves.  More than 20 years ago, she was put in touch with a woman who was somehow able to generate a family tree (likely through a genealogist) that incredibly did include some of her biological family members. The woman put her in touch with a supposed third cousin, who told Denise contradicting stories and even went so far as to forge a letter from her biological mother. But the third cousin later recanted, told Denise they were not her family and cut off communication with her.

Denise with members of her family Aspropyrgos - photo by The Eftychia Project

In 2014, a woman from Thessaloniki who claimed to be a lawyer sent Denise photos of a woman she said was Denise's biological mother, and announced that she had found Denise's biological family in Nafpaktos. She told Denise that she must come now to Greece and all would be revealed. But Denise had no money for an immediate trip to Greece and the woman said that she needed money for her expenses, demanding $2,500 to make the connection between Denise and her family. Denise pleaded for contact information for her family and offered to send what she could -- $250. But the woman said, "What am I gonna do with $250?" and hung up, never to be heard from again. 

Unbeknownst to Denise, the woman had also contacted Denise's biological family, telling them that she had found Denise and to get ready for the big reunion, all the while trying to extort money from them as well. But they, like Denise, did not have the kind of money she demanded. And so, when the family begged for Denise's contact information, the woman cut off communication with the family as well.

Denise and her beloved sister, Eleni - photo by The Eftychia Project

Weary of the drama and the disappointment, Denise had all but given up hope of ever finding her roots, until one sleepless night in March 2019. She scrolled through Facebook on her phone and ran across Eftychia's story in the Tennessean newspaper.

"I was astounded," she remembers. "I wanted to know who this woman was, because it was if this Eftychia had stolen MY story -- born in a village not far from Nafpaktos, taken to the orphanage in Athens, adopted by Americans."  

So, with a sliver of hope, she reached out to Eftychia via email and left her phone number. She was surprised when Eftychia promptly replied, saying that she was eating lunch and would call her in an hour. 

"My first thought," she confessed with a laugh, "was that this Eftychia was a wacko like the rest of them. I mean, who eats lunch at 3 a.m.?" 

But immediately after that, she received a text from Eftychia with two photos of Nafpaktos, where Eftychia just happened to be eating lunch. And she realized then that Eftychia was in Greece, eating lunch just as she had said.

"I knew then it was the real deal," Denise says. "And after we spoke on the phone, I knew she was sincere and truly wanted to help."

l-r Thanasis (Denise's nephew), Denise, Thanasis' wife Simela - photo by The Eftychia Project

Things moved rather quickly after that. Within a few weeks, The Eftychia Project had succeeded in locating Denise's long-lost family in Nafpaktos.  The family was understandably skeptical at first. After all, they'd been scammed before. But when they realized that wasn't the case this time, they were eager to make contact with Denise as soon as possible. Unbelievably, one of Eftychia's cousins and one of Denise's nephews had gone to school together, and Denise's sister Eleni lived only a few blocks from Eftychia's apartment in Nafpaktos. Video chats with the family were arranged. Denise and her family were overjoyed to be reconnected, and Denise began making plans to finally journey to Greece to meet the family for whom she had longed for so many years. 

Denise arrived at the Athens airport in July 2019, setting foot on Greek soil for the first time since she had been adopted as an infant. Eagerly awaiting her arrival were several of her nieces and their daughters, carrying bouquets of flowers and anxious to hug the aunt they had never met.  They called her Paraskevi, the name with which she had been baptized at the orphanage so many years ago. The Eftychia Project was also on hand to provide help and support throughout the duration of Denise's 2-week trip. 

l-r: Mary (niece), Denise, Eleni (sister), Hara (niece) - photo by The Eftychia Project

After coffee at the home of one of her nephews in Aspropyrgos, Denise was driven by Eftychia/Linda Carol Trotter, the president of The Eftychia Project, to Nafpaktos, where Denise's eldest sister Eleni and a host of other relatives waited to greet her. It was a beautiful, emotional two-week reunion, especially the obvious and very deep bond between Denise and Eleni. Ther were lunches, dinners, parties and celebrations at the homes of various family members and Denise was able to explor her family's villages and the town of Nafpaktos. Denise even managed to squeeze in a little sight-seeing, too. 

"It was, in a word," says Denise,"magical. I know who I am and where I belong. And that is priceless."

(Update: Covid restrictions prevented Denise from returning to Greece in 2020-2022. Sadly, her beloved sister, Eleni, passed away in December, 2021. Denise was able to return to Greece to visit the family in October, 2023)