A Woman Left Outside an Orphanage in India Still Searches for Answers: 'How Do You Make Sense of Who You Are?'

Stephanie Kripa Cooper-Lewter has never been able to find the family who put her up for adoption, but her pursuit of information has shaped her life since being adopted by a single mom in Minnesota

Stephanie Kripa Cooper-Lewter
Photo: Courtesy Stephanie Kripa Cooper-Lewter

Stephanie Kripa Cooper-Lewter will be celebrating her 49th birthday this November 28, but her exact age remains shrouded in mystery.

"We don't know if I was a week old or a couple of months old when they found me, so they just gave me a birthday," Kripa Cooper-Lewter tells PEOPLE.

That's because the mother of two was found as an infant in a cradle on the steps of an Indian orphanage started by Mother Teresa. The sisters there estimated she was born in 1972 and came up with her birthdate.

"That's the story I've been told my whole life," Kripa Cooper-Lewter says. "The sisters said they had a cradle outside the orphanage that people could leave children in, because it was common that babies would be abandoned on the street."

She has no documentation marking the start of her life. She just knows she was left at the Missionaries of Charity orphanage in Kanpur, was next sent to a second orphanage in Delhi, then spent three months in a foster home in India before finally being adopted by a single woman in Minnesota in 1975.

Stephanie Kripa Cooper-Lewter
Courtesy Stephanie Kripa Cooper-Lewter

"I've been back to both my orphanages to try to learn more to see if there was paperwork, but we don't know who left me at the orphanage. I have lots of ideas … but I've never gotten answers," she says, adding that all she has for a clue is a note in a file stating that she is most likely Hindu, and the results of a DNA test that show she is 99.9 percent Indian. What she does know: "I was given a name when I arrived at the orphanage: that's Kripa, and I love to use it."

That means she's spent her adulthood seeking answers. "I've wondered my whole life about my beginning story," she says. "I was adopted to a white mother in a single parent home. We looked so different that I've always known from a young age that I had another family In India."

Though she is very close to her adoptive mom, Kripa Cooper-Lewter says the beginning of her life has defined the rest of her life — searching for links to her background when they've been hard to find (for instance, having to drive two hours to find Indian food).

November is National Adoption Month, and PEOPLE is celebrating by highlighting the many extraordinary ways families can grow via adoption, featuring real stories from celebrities, everyday parents and adoptees, as well as information on the varied ways to adopt. For more heartwarming, heartbreaking and happy-ending stories, visit our Adoption page.

Stephanie Kripa Cooper-Lewter
Courtesy Stephanie Kripa Cooper-Lewter

She welcomed daughter Courtney while just 20 and a sophomore at college in Minnesota, and cared for her while advancing in her career as a social worker, and continuing to pursue advanced degrees.

"Courtney was my first biological connection in the entire world that I could touch and hold and that sparked me to continue to learn more," she says. "I was a single mom on welfare, food stamps but I was determined to finish school."

As she learned and studied more about "how trans-racial adoption impacts identity, and what it's like to grow up in a community that looks different from you," Kripa Cooper-Lewter became more determined to explore her biological roots. Her PhD dissertation focused on the impact of international adoption on 20 women of color who were adopted into white families.

"There's a common theme of loss that happens with being available for adoption," she says. "How do you make sense of who you are in the world? How do you make sense of who you are as a woman of color?"

In 2009 she went back with her family to India for the first time. Her daughter was 16, her son just two and a half.

Stephanie Kripa Cooper-Lewter
Courtesy Stephanie Kripa Cooper-Lewter

"I've always wanted to go back since being a little girl," she says. "I've always wanted to see the place where my story began."

She says being there was overwhelming in the best kind of way. "It was surreal. It's something to wake up in a place where people look like you and there's masses of people who look like you. It felt like Wow, this was once my home."

"There's something about walking the streets, smelling the smells, hearing the sounds and just being back where your story begins," she continues. "Especially because I didn't have people along the way who could tell me that part of the story."

She went back a second time in 2018 with another American woman who came from the same Indian orphanage. The two women told their story on the local news in hopes of generating some leads on their birth families, but nothing ever came of it.

Stephanie Kripa Cooper-Lewter
Courtesy Stephanie Kripa Cooper-Lewter

Though she wishes for more insight into her past, she has taken lessons for the present. "Adoption has taught me there are many ways families are created, and I hope to accept people for who they are and not judge people," she says. "There's so much more behind who they are. People make a lot of snap judgments about me until they know my story."

And there's also the struggle to balance her gratitude with a certain sense of loss. "There was a time where I thought my life was so much better because I was adopted," she says. "That's how you're taught and raised, to be grateful. I'm certainly grateful but I also think now with maturity and age my life is just really different. Obviously, it could have been a lot harder."

She finds joy in connecting with others who share a similar story.

"Giving back in the international adoption community is really important to me. I volunteer, I speak, I talk to adoptive parents and to people who have been adopted," she says. "I always celebrate when there are stories of people who do connect with their first family."

Professionally she's worked in philanthropy for the last decade, always with a focus on children and families. "If we provided the support necessary for families, whether it's financial or emotional, we could maybe keep families together more often than not," she says.

Kripa Cooper-Lewter faced yet another major life hurdle when her husband of almost 20 years was diagnosed with leukemia in 2018. He died in May, 2020.

"We talked often about my story and I promised him I would continue to tell my story. I've had a few mountains to climb and this is another one. I think my story says: I've gone through hard stuff, you will too, life happens to all of us. How do we take those moments and turn it into something that gives back and helps others?"

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