When Sarah hired an investigator to dig into her past, she hadn't considered just how life-changing it would be. "I was just pinching myself," she recalled. 4000 miles from her home, Sarah discovered a new life as a princess.
Living a Fairytale
"It was overwhelming… like a dream," Sarah Culberson recalled of the moment her reality as a grad student was turned upside down. However, that's not to say her life was a fantasy by any means.
In fact, Sarah's life took her on quite the rollercoaster before ending up where she did. "It was a reality check," Culberson recalled. Between the quest to uncover her adoptive past to finally meeting them face-to-face, sit tight as we take you on this modern-day fairytale.
Meet the Princess
Sarah Culberson's journey to uncovering her trans-Atlantic royal roots was no walk in the park. However, that was a theme in the 28-year-old's life from the get-go. Sarah was no stranger to life's ups and downs, but she never tried to hide it either. It's all part of her unique story.
And chapter one of this one-of-a-kind fairytale started back in 1976 when Sarah Culberson was born. For just under a year, the newborn was attached at the hip to her mom. But life changed suddenly when she ended up at an orphanage. However, things were about to take another turn very soon.
Sarah Joined a New Family
In what seemed like no time at all, Sarah, now days away from turning one, found herself in Morgantown, West Virginia. The infant had been taken in by the Culbersons, a warm and caring caucasian family of four. The parents, Jim and Judy, added Sarah to the mix and grew their family to five.
Jim and Judy had endless devotion to shower their newest addition with. And Sarah proved to be the missing puzzle piece that the family didn't even know was missing. "Sarah was an outgoing, people-meeting, one-year-old," the proud papa said in awe of his kiddo. But Sarah also fit in a different puzzle altogether…
Sarah Learned the Truth
All the love and care in the world couldn't erase the burning ethical problem that faced Jim and Judy: They knew they needed to tell Sarah about her past, but they wanted to do it as gently as possible. Looking back, they couldn't have predicted the outrageous events that would follow.
However, at the moment, it seemed like an emotionally challenging but manageable task. And it needed to happen sooner rather than later, so Sarah could move forward with her life knowing the truth. But to their young daughter, the news came as a devastating blow that shook her to her core.
It Left More Questions Than Answers
In one conversation, all that Sarah knew crumbled around her. And no matter how much love there was between her, her parents, and her siblings, things suddenly looked different. "I had all these questions... I felt determined to discover who I was," Sarah remembered of being told about her adoption.
All Sarah could see were question marks. From her birthplace and birth parents to her life in Morgantown, West Virginia, soon all she could think about was getting to the bottom of it all. But the quest to uncover her past would take her on the ride of a lifetime…
She Tried to Adjust
That's not to say that Sarah bolted the second she found out. No, she stayed in Morgantown with her family. In the years that followed, she landed a prestigious spot at West Virginia University to pursue her passion for acting. On the outside, all seemed good. But behind the scenes, Sarah was struggling.
Her love of being on stage took her all the way out West. After finishing her degree in her home state, she enrolled for a Master's degree at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, California. But as Sarah's professional acting career started gaining speed, she realized that she wasn't where she needed to be.
She Moved to Los Angeles
So once again, Sarah relocated. But this time to sunny Los Angeles. The accomplished university graduate was ready to take on Hollywood. And as she stepped foot in the city of angels, she hoped that great things would soon be coming her way. But never in her wildest dreams did she imagine where life would take her.
Los Angeles brought some glitz and glam to the passionate actress. But even Rodeo Drive couldn't suppress the feelings lurking in Sarah's brain. She couldn't believe it: Nearly a dozen states away, trying to pursue her lifelong dreams, and suddenly she felt pulled back to West Virginia. But why?
Sarah Longed for Her Hometown
It wasn't as if her career wasn't taking off in L.A. Actually, quite the contrary. But for some reason, the move out West felt like a regression for Sarah. Her personal life continued to be plagued by unresolved feelings going back to that one fateful conversation with her parents. And Jim and Judy's words felt louder than ever.
What did her life look like before Jim and Judy brought her home? And was anyone out there looking for her? The young actress was full of doubt. However, she was certain that she couldn't go another day with all these questions burning in her brain. But the lust for truth would take her down a path of no return.
Sarah Attended a Motivational Speech
Looking for some guidance, Sarah signed up for a lecture that aimed to inspire, support, and encourage everyone in the audience. She wasn't sure exactly what she needed, but she guessed that this would be a good place to begin her journey of self-discovery. She entered the Landmark Forum's event, ready to grow.
She came in with hoards of other people and took her seat. Eager to get started, Culberson grabbed her paper and diligently took notes on her lecturer's presentation. One sentence of his in particular suddenly sent chills down her spine: "Where are you holding back in life?" the lecturer asked.
Suddenly It All Became Clear
In that instant, Sarah felt everyone else in the room disappear. That one simple question pierced through her exterior and brought everything to light. Whether Culberson wanted to admit it or not, she had been restraining herself for ages. And it all boiled down to the moment she found out that was adopted.
Sarah knew that Jim and Judy cared for her deeply. But that didn't erase the one crucial secret they shared with her back in her childhood. Culberson decided once and for all that it was time to dive into her past - no matter how much it scared her. But, if she was successful in finding them, would her birth parents feel the same?
It Was Time to Discover the Truth
Culberson's brain was filled to the brim with what-ifs. But ever since that seminar, she heard the presenter's question playing on repeat in her head. He was right: It was time to stop making excuses. No matter the result, Sarah knew that she had to do this for herself - before she spent her whole life wondering.
"I always had questions about my birth mother," Culberson admitted. "I wondered what she was like, if I looked like her." Sarah was overcome with nerves as she reached out to a private investigator. She had officially reached the point of no return.
The Detective Had Found Answers
It took way less time than Sarah had suspected. A mere three hours after getting in touch, she got a phone call back from the detective. In an exciting turn of events, he shared what he had uncovered so far: And there was a lot to go on. Culberson's knees were weak from anticipation as she prayed for good news.
But much to Sarah's dismay, the news wasn't what she'd hoped for. "I learned that my mother passed away from cancer when I would've been 11," Culberson recalled. The grief crushed her. Though she did learn that they had similar personalities and even identical smiles, nothing could fill the hole she felt. Until more news came...
Sarah Found Extended Family in the States
Still reeling from the news about her mom, Sarah tried to pay attention as the detective continued to outline what he'd found. The evidence included an address that he believed to be linked to a distant family member. Sarah snapped to focus and copied the location for her own records. Safe to say, she was overcome with emotions.
Even with all the info that the private investigator shared with her, Sarah was far from finished with her quest to uncover her past. "I realized I still had so many questions and little answers," she reflected. But, with an address linked to a possible aunt and uncle in front of her, she knew exactly what to do next.
Sarah Decided to Reach Out
Overcome with nerves, Sarah put pen to paper and wrote a letter to her supposed family in Maryland. She sealed the letter and ran off to mail the letter. From the moment she handed it over to the mail clerk, the what-ifs flooded back. Would they want to be in touch? Every minute felt like an eternity as she waited to hear back.
Sarah sat through three days of radio silence. But just before losing hope, she got what she had hoped for her. Sarah's phone began to ring, and as she reached for it, she froze. Time seemed to stop as she heard a voice she didn't recognize. Everything changed with the next four words Sarah heard: "We received your letter."
"It Was Surreal"
Sarah was bursting with so much to say, but couldn't get a word out. Could this woman on the phone be a gate to the unknown? Sarah took a deep breath and managed to get a sentence out. Then another one. Suddenly she found herself spilling every worry, fear, and hope to this stranger - her long-lost aunt, Evelyn.
And to Sarah's surprise, her Aunt found herself equally as tongue-tied. Suddenly, after two decades, her niece found her and had a list of tough questions. At a loss for words, Evelyn passed the receiver over to her husband. But the events that unfolded swept Sarah off her feet. "It was a surreal experience," she remembered.
Discovering Her Family's Roots
"Do you know who you are?" Sarah's estranged uncle inquired. The question was a loaded one. Sarah had been asking herself the very same thing for nearly her whole life. The curiosity was endless: Did she look like her parents? Were there any memories for her to cherish? She needed to know more.
But what Sarah learned was not was she expected. It was life-changing: She hailed from a royal family. She belonged to the Mahaloi, and was the descendent of a Paramount Chief. Sarah was a princess! And her father, Joseph Konia Kposowa, was living in the town of Bumpe. "I honestly just couldn't believe it."
Facing Her Biological Father
Over 4,000 miles stood between her and her royal family in Sierra Leone. Sarah was at a loss for words from this new information. Never could she have predicted this result when she first reached out to the private investigator. But this latest development gave Sarah a difficult choice to make. Would she act on what she learned?
Sarah's state couldn't be summed up as relief. She was overcome with lots of emotions. Abandonment, resentment, and overall curiosity washed over her body. She sat in her feelings for a good two weeks until her phone rang with an international code. As Sarah picked up, everything clicked: She knew who was phoning.
Sarah and Her Dad's Heart-to-Heart
From the moment Sarah picked up the phone, she was overcome with a wave of emotions. And she can remember it as if it were yesterday. "The first thing he said to me was, 'Please forgive me,'" Sarah said. And as she heard her biological father utter those initial words, Culberson felt like it was too good to be true.
Not a day had gone by without Joseph thinking of his daughter. "Your name changed. Everything had changed… I didn't know how to find you," he admitted. All of Sarah's anger was misdirected - Joseph never meant to reject her. "No, please forgive me," Sarah apologized. "I've always believed you didn't want me in your life."
The Reasoning Behind the Adoption
The anger and confusion that had once consumed Sarah quickly disappeared. She was relieved to know that her father had spent his life looking for his baby girl. But there were still many questions that Sarah needed answered. Like how did Judy and Jim fit in the whole picture?
Years ago, in 1976, Joseph had come to West Virginia to study. He soon found himself head over heels for Sarah's biological mother. However, the pregnancy changed everything. The new parents weren't equipped to raise Sarah. "We wanted to get you to a family who could really take care of you," he admitted to his daughter.
She Hopped on a Plane To Meet Him
Sarah finally had everything out on the table. But the wealth of new information brought up some difficult feelings. Sure, she was relieved to be in touch with her biological dad and learn of her past, but she couldn't help but feel that a whole different life had passed by without her knowing. She knew what needed to happen next.
And so, in 2004, Sarah boarded a plane to meet her father in Bumpe. She didn't exactly know what to expect, but Sarah crossed her fingers that it would go well. All her dreams and more came true the second she saw her dad waiting for her at the arrivals terminal. "It felt like coming home," she gushed.
From the moment she laid eyes on him, Sarah felt as though no time had passed at all. The 28 years of distance melted away as they hugged each other in the middle of the arrivals gate. Overcome with emotions, Sarah could do little but cry from joy. Her dad gifted her an emerald dress, and the pair headed off to the village.
Sarah could barely believe what she was seeing. She gazed out the car, soaking in her surroundings. And as Sarah and Joseph made their way to the town, she couldn't help but think about how far this journey had taken her. Thousands of miles from West Virginia, and yet also at home. They finally made it to Bumpe.
The "Overwhelming" Arrival
"It was 100, 200, 300 - hundreds of people, singing and dancing, welcoming me to my family's village," Culberson remembered of the emotional welcoming that she received. Things were happening at lightning speed. Sarah could barely wrap her mind around what was happening. But she would never forget what she saw next.
"All the women who came forward were wearing the same green dress," Culberson remembered as she donned the one Joseph had gifted her. "It was shocking." Any worries she had about the town's reception flew out the window. The people couldn't have been happier to see their princess. "It was overwhelming… like a dream," she said.
Once the initial excitement died down, reality kicked in. Her princess status came with serious commitments. It wouldn't be fun, all the time. After all, she had a town full of people to care for. She was suddenly aware of how little she knew. "My only guidance of what a princess was was what I saw in movies," she admitted.
And Bumpe was nothing like the fairytales that she grew up reading about and seeing in movies. Sarah was inspired to do something. "It's about walking in my great-grandfather and grandfather's footsteps… to keep moving things forward in the country," Culberson explained. She was a woman on a mission.
Sarah's Total 360°
In the blink of an eye, Sarah Culberson went from her ordinary life as an aspiring actress to being a princess. And it was quite the learning curve. However, no matter how many challenges were thrown at her, Sarah knew that she would do anything she could to help Bumpe.
And the people needed help. Badly. Sierra Leon had been devastated by the violence that swept across the country two years earlier. The population was reeling from the civil conflict that left thousands impoverished. Sarah's career was the farthest thing on her mind. She decided to jeopardize everything to make a difference.
Doing Her Part
Sarah took a deep breath and dove in head-first. "I was like, 'OK, let's do this... Whatever it takes." And the princess meant it with her whole heart. She started out by founding her organization, Sierra Leone Rising. With the money raised, she was able to restore the village's high school. But Sarah was just getting started...
Sarah tried to find a solution to every problem. She dedicated her time to helping the girls of Bumpe. And when the pandemic hit, she started another fundraiser. "Our goal is to…ensure that our children receive the best education possible so they can thrive, be aware of the world and make a difference," Sarah said proudly.
The Hollywood Dream Didn't Die
This was no run-of-the-mill fairytale. And Sarah knew it too. She was more than aware of just how unique her story was, and it inspired her to record every moment of it. And as soon as the Internet got a hold of it, Sarah's life's story absolutely blew up.
It was 2009 when Sarah finally published her autobiography, A Princess Found. The book followed Sarah on her "journey through adoption, war, and forgiveness." But publication wouldn't be the end of it. "My memoir... is being turned into a feature film by Disney," Sarah shared. Looks like her Hollywood dreams came true, after all.
What About the Culbersons
Sarah's quest to discover her past led her on the most unexpected adventure. Looking back, Sarah couldn't imagine a life without her family in Sierra Leone. But at one point, it was the Culbersons who were her only family. And how exactly did they feel about Sarah's new discoveries?
Well, like always, Judy and Jim showed nothing but love. "She went looking for the truth, and we supported her," Judy shared with pride. They were more than happy to walk Sarah through her journey. "We always knew there was a story… I [just] didn't know that story would take us all the way to Africa."
Will Sarah Move to Bumpe
But, of course, hindsight is 20/20. And while back then, Sarah's discovery took Jim and Judy by surprise, they've since accepted it. But with her two families straddled between the Atlantic ocean, Sarah had a choice to make. Would she remain in the States, or would she move permanently to Sierra Leone?
There's no doubt about it: Sarah's heart was in Bumpe. But it was also in America with the Culbersons and her friends. And what about taking a more active role as Chief? "That is a responsibility that I am not interested in this lifetime," Sarah stated. But never say never, right?
"That's the Journey"
Sarah's journey to royalty is what fairytales are made of. From her childhood in Virginia to her family in Bumpe, Sarah's path to self-discovery has changed her life. But the thousands of miles between her two homes couldn't be ignored. Would she be forced to choose? While Sarah can't answer that, one thing's for sure...
Sarah's just getting started. Sure, life panned out a lot differently than how she imagined it. But she wouldn't trade it for anything. And just because Sierra Leone was a part of her past, doesn't mean that it won't also be a part of her future. "This is about supporting and connecting. That's the journey," as Sarah put it.
Understanding Her Life's Purpose
Never, when Sarah sat at the motivational lecture, or even when she called the detective, did she think she would end up where she did. From a childhood filled with doubt and heartache, Sarah overcame her adversities to discover herself. And if you ask her, every second of the ride was worth it.
"I feel so blessed," Sarah said in appreciation. She had more than she could ever imagine. And wanted to do what she could to pay it forward. "I really think I was meant to help. That's why I was put on this Earth," she explained of her life's purpose. It seemed like all the stars aligned for Bumpe's princess...