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Uncovering the roots and branches of my family tree

Research leads adoptee’s child to biological grandparents — and LOTS of aunts, uncles and cousins.

Denver Water is very proud of our diverse workforce. We asked a few of our employees to share accounts of their cultures and experiences for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, which occurs in May and celebrates the achievements and contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States.

Raelani Smith, who provides administrative support for the Water Distribution group at Denver Water, grew up in Colorado surrounded by her parents and six siblings. 

And for most of her life, that is where her family tree stopped — at least from a biological perspective.

Culture and heritage play an important role in our lives. Across the world, people document, preserve, honor and celebrate their cultural traditions. 

And understanding your heritage can provide a sense of identity, allowing you to celebrate family customs and know where you came from.

Raelani Smith with husband Samuel in 2020.

But what if your family history is unclear? 

Both of Smith’s parents were adopted as infants — her mother in Kansas and her father in Hawaii. 

“Neither of my parents knew their biological families, so our family tree, at least from a DNA standpoint was always quite small,” said Smith.

Smith (right) in 1984 with her parents Maureen and Reginald Ronolo and two of her siblings Robin and Raine.

This changed in 2020, when one of Smith’s sisters turned to an online genealogy website to try to uncover some of the mysteries of their heritage. 

Smith’s father grew up on the island of Oahu in Hawaii with his adoptive parents, who were both born in Hawaii to Filipino immigrants, and his sister who was also adopted. 

Ricardo and Isabelle Ronolo in 1978. The couple adopted their son Reginald when he was an infant.

As a young adult in the early 1970s, he joined the Army and was deployed to Germany.

“Germany was such a contrast from Hawaii, and my dad was mesmerized by how different it was — he fell in love with the snow and the mountains,” said Smith.

In the late 70s, his military service brought him to Denver, where he met his wife and they settled down to raise their children.

But they frequently took their children back to Hawaii to visit their grandparents, often making the trip in May when the island state’s flowers were in full bloom, spreading an amazing fragrance across the island.

Smith has fond childhood memories of her time on Oahu, and like most kids, those memories involve delicious treats.

Raelani Smith in Oahu during a trip to Hawaii in 2009.

“Instead of the ice cream man, Oahu had the ‘manapua man.’ He would drive around with a cart full of Hawaiian steamed buns — fluffy yeast rolls filled with a variety of fillings, most often pork,” said Smith.

She also remembers the shaved ice shop they would frequent as children. 

“They had this huge block of ice that they would shave up, add flavor to and then put into a cone on top of a layer of ice cream or red beans,” she said.

The Hawaiian food and island activities that she experienced during her childhood trips to Oahu are things she shares with her own family today. Like her parents before her, Smith takes her three children and niece and nephew to Hawaii to spend time with her family and enjoy the Hawaiian lifestyle and diverse cultures. 

Smith (right) with Victoria (niece), Kaireigh (son), Jeremiah (nephew) and Kailecia (daughter) in 2021 during a family trip to the Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota.

Hawaii is one of the most racially diverse places in the world, with more than 24% of residents claiming multiethnic backgrounds in the U.S. Census — far more than any other U.S. state.

“There are so many different ethnicities that make up the Hawaiian culture. My dad never truly knew where his biological roots were within that mix — until 2020 when my sister began researching my parents’ biological families,” said Smith.

Through genealogical research, she discovered that their father’s biological parents were Hawaiian and Japanese, with Chinese ancestry as well.

They also discovered that their mother’s lineage is predominantly Irish.

Take a trip through Ireland with Denver Water’s very own Irishman.

With their family tree starting to grow with each new discovery, they decided to take the next step — locating and contacting their newly discovered family members.

Over the last year, they’ve gotten in touch with some of their biological family members. 

“We found out that my mom has three living siblings and have been in contact with all three of them. Unfortunately, my biological grandmother passed away shortly after we found her.” 

Smith also has connected with some of her dad’s biological family members and was overjoyed to discover he comes from a very large family. 

Smith’s paternal great-grandfather Emimicio (front right) with daughter Sergia and sons (from top left) Julian Pasco “Sonny,” Busilio, and Ricardo (Smith’s grandfather).

Her newly found paternal grandmother had 11 siblings, and each sibling had very large families of their own. 

Smith's family also discovered that their dad has six siblings, five of whom are still alive, spread out across the Hawaiian Islands, the Philippines and in California. 

Smith has been able to see photos of her newfound grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins and has had Zoom video calls with few of her new family members. And she’s still reaching out to find more members of her newly found, very large family.

More Asian Pacific American Heritage Month stories: Denver Water procurement specialist traces roots to Hmong refugee camp. 

“All their lives, both of my parents had loving homes with wonderful parents, but they grew up knowing they didn’t look like anyone in their family. It’s been so amazing to connect with other people and see the physical similarities. We see a photo or have a virtual call with a family member and say, ‘You have Dad’s smile,’ or ‘I see where Mom gets her eyes.’”

As the branches of her family tree continue to grow, Smith is happy she, her parents and siblings have found a family they never knew existed.

Smith (center) in 2006 with siblings Reginald, Ricardo, Raine, Robin, Shyann and Cherokee.

“It’s been wonderful to fill in many of the gaps that we had in our lineage and learn more about our family’s heritage. Finding many of the missing pieces has helped us gain a clearer picture of who we are and where are family’s roots are,” she said.

“It’s all still so new to us, and we are excited to learn more and see how we can find ways to incorporate newly discovered cultures into our family traditions.”