It took Maxine Chalker nearly 40 years to muster up the courage to face her past.
Even then, finding her biological family wasn't so easy: It required tracking down the judge who approved her adoption, writing to dozens of churches in Philadelphia, and waiting for months to get answers.
The investigation paid off.
Chalker, who was born Christian, but adopted and raised by a Jewish family in Havertown, eventually located her birth mother and her two biological siblings. Now, the 63-year-old mother of five strives to simplify the search process for other adoptees.
That's why her Wynnewood-based agency, Adoptions From the Heart, promotes open adoptions — a system allowing adopted children to know their birth parents from day one.
In this type of adoption, birth parents actually choose their adoptive counterparts through DVDs, videos or profiles provided by the organization via its Web site. Birth parents are then allowed to visit their child from time to time, as well as write to him or her.
Still, Chalker's quick to point out that open adoption "is not co-parenting."
She said that most adopted children only see their biological children once or twice a year, and often refer to their birth parents on a first-name basis.
"The birth parents are not the legal parents," she explained.
Since Chalker started working out of her Penn Valley home in 1985, her business has grown substantially; it has 12 offices in seven states, and has placed more than 4,500 children.
The operation has also become something of a family affair. Chalker's husband, Wayne Mollick, works at the agency, as does her daughter, Heidi Gonzalez, who serves as the center's director of communications.
Though she always had an intimate knowledge of the process from being an adoptee herself, Chalker said that she came to the idea of open adoption after working at a public child-welfare agency for seven years.
As she explained: "We'd be like, 'This child should go with the Jones,' " citing the arbitrary nature of the match-ups. "And in a way, what right do we have to do that?"
Chalker also said the public agency saw a steady stream of clients arrive with questions about their backgrounds.
"That got me interested in seeing how adoption should be done differently," said Chalker.
Her organization is revolutionizing the field in other ways as well — hers was among the first to allow transracial and lesbian/gay adoptions.
"That was like a 'no-no' for a long time. But it's our job to provide good families … it's up to the birth parents" to pick the kind of home they'd want for their child.
Chalker acknowledged that her acceptance of all kinds of people is rooted in the Reform Jewish values of her childhood.
She also said that adoptions run the gamut in terms of ethnicity.
In particular, Chalker noted that international adoption has become increasingly popular over the years; nearly 60 percent of her recent placements have involved foreign children.
This trend permits Chalker to travel abroad often, which she does to help prospective parents retrieve their international adoptees. So far, she's been to Vietnam and Guatemala; next month, she'll go to Ecuador.
Though she said she enjoys what she does, Chalker admits that the work can be trying: She described the adoption process as lengthy and arduous, and cited bureaucratic snags and ever-changing laws in the international arena. She said such factors can be especially difficult for parents who've endured infertility.
"It's just not like going to buy a pair of shoes. You have to be patient — things change."