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Mary Mitchell: Infant found in garbage can thrived because of love

Isisah Duckworth (left) was cared for by Charlene Wells RN when she was abandoned withan hour being born. They were

Isisah Duckworth (left) was cared for by Charlene Wells, RN, when she was abandoned within an hour of being born. They were reunited many years later. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: June 13, 2013 6:56PM

On Jan. 21, 1981, temperatures hovered just above freezing when a man, rummaging through a trash can in an alley in Englewood, made a startling discovery.

“I got a call from an ambulance company saying they were bringing in a baby that was abandoned,” recalled Charlene Wells, who was the neonatal nurse on duty at St. Bernard Hospital.

Although the infant weighed only 4 pounds, she arrived at the hospital “warm” and “pink.” A doctor estimated the female infant to be about an hour old. The nurses named her “Relisa” in honor of the returning Iran hostages, and Wells held her in her arms for a photograph that ran in the newspapers the next day.

“We knew this was a survivor,” Wells told me in a recent interview.

Four days later, Jessie and Willie Guy walked into St. Bernard Hospital and took the baby girl home.

They named the infant Isisah Ja’net Guy, and changed her date of birth to Jan. 27, 1981, apparently to hide her tragic beginning.

Jessie taught cosmetology and did hair in the family’s south suburban Harvey home. Willie was a factory worker. The couple were raising three other children when they welcomed the newborn into their home. They were Calvin Suttles, whom the Guys raised but did not legally adopt, and the Guys’ biological children, Rodney and Michelle Guy. They later adopted Sergio, DeMargo and DeAndre Guy, and also raised Willie Robertson.

“I loved my mom. She was a mother to so many people. Foster kids came in and out. Some stayed a couple of years. Some stayed a few months,” said Guy, who now uses her married name of Duckworth.

Still, she had questions.

“I used to always have questions as to who I looked like,” Duckworth told me as we sat at her dining table poring over old photographs.

“I used to ask my mom all the time, and she was like, “you look like me when I was little.”

But she once stumbled upon an inoculation record that listed her birth date as Jan. 21, 1981.

“I asked my mom about why we celebrate Jan. 27 as my birthday. She never told me why,” Duckworth recalled.

In 2008, a family friend confided to Duckworth she was adopted, but when she asked her father, he denied it.

“I questioned everybody and everybody said no, and I let it go,” Duckworth said.

But not long afterward, the adoption was dragged out into the open during a spat between Duckworth and another close family friend.

“I got this text that said: ‘Mind your own business and go find your own family, adopted girl,’ ” Duckworth said.

“I was so upset. I was like, it’s got to be true. I went digging and I found this story,” she said tapping a photocopy of the news story published on Jan. 22, 1981.

The article showed a nurse holding an infant who was abandoned in Englewood.

“When I saw that baby,” Duckworth said, her voice cracking with emotion. “When I saw that baby, I knew it was me.”

Duckworth said she “cried and cried” when she saw the photograph of Charlene Wells holding her.

“That’s me at four days old,” she said picking up a Polaroid photograph. “That’s when my mom got me.”

Duckworth contacted St. Bernard Hospital and Englewood District police but did not find any records pertaining to the abandonment.

Then she went looking for the woman in the photograph.

“When I went on Facebook and looked up Charlene Wells, she was on Facebook.

“Do you remember a little girl you cared for in the hospital and you named Relisa?” Duckworth asked in a message she sent to the social media site.

“I just started to cry. It was just unbelievable,” Wells said.

Because of her experience caring for Duckworth, Wells, who is now an administrator for the state’s perinatal program, ended up adopting a baby who was left behind in the hospital, Wells said.

“I think children need to know that they are adopted. Once that connection is restored, they can move forward,” Wells said.

Shortly after that initial contact, Wells bumped into Duckworth on an elevator in a downtown office building.

“She looked at me and I looked at her,” Wells said.

“Are you Charlene Wells?” Duckworth asked. “I’m Isisah. It was very emotional.”

Duckworth was able to get her adoption records from a local adoption agency, but it did not contain information about her birth parents.

Her adoptive mother died in 2003 at age 70.

“Your mother never wanted you to know,” Duckworth’s father told her.

Today, Duckworth, 32, is the mother of 19-month-old twins Daniel and Darren Duckworth.

“I knew once she started digging, she was just going to keep digging,” said her husband De’Leon Duckworth, 31. “We just want to know the medical history, for the boys. We’re just trying to get information and closure.”

Duckworth graduated from Thornton High School and earned her bachelor of science, master of public health and MBA from St. Xavier University. She works in the public health field dealing with HIV-positive women.

“I don’t know what the circumstances were . . . how I ended up in a garbage can, but my life could have been completely different from what it is now. Thinking about that helps me deal with the situation of how I was found,” she said.

She wants others to know they, too, can overcome what may look like insurmountable odds. Even though Duckworth’s life started tragically, she not only survived but thrived because a woman stepped up and showed a mother’s love.

“There is a lot of hurting children out there, a lot of hurting teens, a lot of kids that went through the foster care that didn’t have a good experience,” Duckworth said. “I want them to know that a bad story can end up good.”

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