For years — since first beginning a search for her birth family and learning that she had a half-sister named Dawn Johnson — Hillary Harris wondered if she’d ever find the woman who shared the same father.
Adopted as an infant, “I’d found three other half-siblings on Facebook, but I was having no luck with Dawn,” Hillary, 31, of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, tells PEOPLE. “I was beginning to think that I’d never find her.”
Then one day last summer, Hillary and her husband, Lance Harris, 44, noticed a couple unloading a moving van at the house next door.
“I learned that the woman’s first name was Dawn, her partner’s name was Kurt Casperson and that she was from Greenwood — the same town where Dawn Johnson had lived according to the obituary I’d found for my father, Wayne Clouse,” says Hillary. “I told my husband, ‘Her name is Dawn — what if she’s my sister?’ and we both laughed and said, ‘No way.’ No way could that be.”
Or could it?
Two months later, Hillary, who had been too shy to ask for Dawn’s last name, looked out her window and saw that a large order of shingles had been delivered to the house next door. And on a bright red tarp that covered the shingles, someone had written the name “Johnson.”
“I screamed and jumped all over the house, then called Lance and said, ‘Her name is Dawn Johnson! It has to be her!’ ” recalls Hillary, who has one daughter, Stella, 5, and runs an in-home daycare center.
“Well, that’s it,” Lance told her. “We’re going to go over and talk to her.”
Still, while chatting with Dawn in her garage, Hillary couldn’t get up the nerve to ask her about her family history.
“I was just so nervous and I was worried about rejection,” Hillary tells PEOPLE. “She must have thought I was really strange, staring at her to see if she looked like me.”
Later that night, remembering that Dawn had mentioned she was going out-of-town, Hillary finally texted her and asked a question from her birth father’s obituary: “Were you the Loyal Corn Fest queen in 1983?”
“LOL,” Dawn replied, “Why are you asking that?”
“I decided right then to go for it,” recalls Hillary, “and I asked her another question: ‘Who is your birth father?’ ”
“Wayne Clouse,” texted Dawn, “but he died in 2010.”
“I started hollering and freaking out, then I called her immediately,” says Hillary. “We were on the phone for hours that night, crying and talking. Neither of us could believe it.”
Raised by her stepfather, Dawn, a 50-year-old medical lab assistant, always knew that she had a birth father, but didn’t meet Clouse until she was 18.
“It never occurred to me to ask if he had other kids,” Dawn tells PEOPLE. “I was as shocked as Hillary was to learn that we were sisters.”
What are the odds, she wonders, of moving next door to Hillary and discovering two months later that they had the same father? When she and Kurt decided to move 63 miles from Greenwood to Eau Claire — which has a population of 68,339 — in June 2017, they looked at more than 20 homes before putting in an offer on the 676-square-foot, two-bedroom gray house next to Hillary and Lance’s.
“We even share a driveway,” Dawn says, incredulously. “We are literally 20 feet apart. How does that happen?”
After keeping their news quiet for almost a year, the sisters only recently decided to go public with their story after a friend of Hillary’s asked if she could tell somebody at a local television station how they found each other.
“We’re pretty much inseparable now and we know this was meant to be,” says Hillary. “Our story is living proof that it pays not to give up. Now I tell people who are adopted and searching for parents or siblings to walk over to the house next door and ring the doorbell. You just might be amazed at what you find.”