Woodie Ann Vaughns has watched stories of family members being reunited on the show, "Long Lost Family," but what happened to her was more amazing than anything she'd seen on television.
“I haven’t seen any who it took 73 years to find like it did me,” she said.
Vaughns, 73, has gone her entire life without knowing a single member of her mother’s side of her family. In August, she will meet at least 15 of them after several cousins in South Carolina tracked her down in Shreveport.
“I want people to know about this who might be encouraged to the point of not giving up, to the point of knowing anything is possible,” Vaughns said. “All you’ve got to do is wait, and you might have a breakthrough.”
Vaughns was born to Woodrow and Elizabeth Vaughn in July 1943. She says a mistake on her birth certificate added the extra “s” to her last name.
Elizabeth was originally from Conway, South Carolina, but Woodrow was in the army and being sent on an overseas assignment, so his wife went to live with his family members in Baton Rouge.
“He wanted her to be cared for, so he took her there,” Vaughns said.
Nine months after Vaughns’ birth, her mother died at the age of 18. The events that took place immediately after her mother’s death are still not completely known by Vaughns. She believes from various anecdotes she’s been told that her maternal grandmother wanted to take her back to South Carolina, but her father wanted her to stay with his family.
“I don’t know if he trusted (his wife's family) to the point that if he turned me over, that they would allow him to be involved,” she said.
Vaughns presumes that if her grandmother tried to retrieve her and was unsuccessful, she didn’t have much choice but to go back to South Carolina.
“We’re looking at 1943 and 1944, and money wasn’t plentiful back then,” Vaughns said. “For her to have come from Conway to Baton Rouge, that was a big deal.”
Because her father was still in the military, Vaughns was raised by one of his sisters and her husband. Vaughns came to know them as her parents, and she wasn’t clear on the actual situation until she was an older child.
“One day when I was coming home from school, I was about eight years old, and this lady called me to her, and she said, 'Did you know that the people you stay with are not your mom and daddy?'” Vaughns said. “She said, 'That’s your aunt and uncle, and you go home and you ask them.' So I did, and mama told me that we’ll talk about it later. But later never came, and she never talked about it.”
Vaughns did have visits with Woodrow, coming to understand that he was her biological father.
“Daddy would come and he would visit with me, and I never lived with him, but he was thoughtful where I was concerned,” she said.
Vaughns attended Grambling State University and moved to Shreveport in 1980 after graduation. Her father remarried and had two children, and Vaughns said she kept in contact with them.
But over the years, Vaughns never met or knew any members of her mother’s side of the family, and she didn’t know how to go about finding them.
“I never looked for them because I only had mama’s name, her year of death and the place she was from,” she said. “When I would hear of someone being from that area, I would ask them how close they were to Conway and try to get some information, but it never worked out.”
Even as technology evolved to where more records are available online, Vaughns wasn't familiar enough with computers to use those tools.
She didn't know it, but her long lost family members were also looking for her. Finally, this past April, they found her.
“I got this phone call, and this lady said, ‘I’m looking for Woodie Vaughns,’” she recalled. “I said this is Woodie, and she said, ‘Hi cousin!’”
Vaughns’ cousin told her that the family in South Carolina had been looking for her for a long time. They had encountered several road blocks, including the extra “s” on Vaughns’ last name causing some confusion.
“She’s a computer specialist, and she and another cousin got together and did this,” Vaughns said. “She said they got as much information as they could on daddy, and they cross-referenced it.”
The cousins were nervous that Vaughns wouldn’t welcome them getting in touch with her because it had taken so long, she said.
“They were concerned I wouldn’t want to talk to them,” Vaughns said. “I said why would I be like that? God was kind enough to give you the wisdom to find me, and he was kind enough to let me live, so why wouldn’t I want to talk to you?”
Since that initial phone call, Vaughns has discovered some of her mother’s siblings are still living, and she has received phone calls from several more of the cousins she never knew.
In August, many of those family members will rent a 15-passenger van and drive down to Shreveport from South Carolina to meet her for the first time.
While there are still many mysteries to Vaughns about her childhood and what she may have missed out on by not knowing her mother or her mother’s family, she said she doesn’t question why things happen the way they do.
“You never know how you’re going to turn out or who you’re going to be,” she said. “It is my belief that God has a plan for all of us. If we just walk in his plan, things turn out like they’re supposed to."