"I was just pinching myself," Sarah confessed. Sure enough, after hiring a detective to unearth her mysterious past, her life would never be the same. From West Virginia to royalty, here's her remarkable story.
A Princess Is Born
Sarah Culberson was a 28-year-old grad student when she received a phone call that changed her life. "It was overwhelming… like a dream," she recalled. But that doesn't mean it's always been a fairy tale.
The truth? She didn't get her happy ending without a few twists and turns along the way. "It was a reality check," Sarah explained. From separating from her birth family to their shocking reunion halfway across the globe, hang on while we rehash her journey to coming home.
As for how an American student came to discover her ties to a country 4,000+ miles away? Safe to say, it was exactly as complicated as it sounds. But the truth is that nothing about Sarah Culberson's life was ever ordinary, as she'll happily remind us.
From the moment she was born in 1976, the young girl was taken on one whirlwind of a ride. After spending the first 9 months of her life by her mother's side, the infant was eventually sent to foster care. Little did she know, she wouldn't be staying long.
She Was Adopted
In 1977, just 2 days before her first birthday, the infant's journey brought her to the Culberson's doorstep: A loving white family from Morgantown, West Virginia, who welcomed Sarah into their home with open arms. Sure, Jim and Judy already had two other daughters. But as far as the adoptive parents were concerned?
They had enough love to go around, and then some. And from the moment they held their new baby girl in their arms, they couldn't have been more right: "Sarah was an outgoing, people-meeting, 1-year-old," her father, Jim, gushed of his boisterous little girl. He was going to protect her at all costs. Or so he thought...
Finding Out About Her Adoption
As Mr. and Mrs. Culberson watched their little girl continue to grow, they were met with a moral dilemma; something they felt their daughter had to know. Only as they sat Sarah down to tell her the truth about her past, they had no idea the madness that’d call for.
For the protective parents, it was an innocent deed; a difficult conversation meant to protect their little girl from any potential future heartbreak. But as far as Sarah was concerned? The words her parents suddenly hurled her way were... crushing.
She Was Curious About Her Past
Three short words. That's all it took to turn the young girl's life upside down: She was adopted. And while her birth family meant the entire world to her, she suddenly felt lonelier than ever before. "I had all these questions... I felt determined to discover who I was," Sarah recalled.
Where did she come from? Who were her birth parents? Why had they given her up for adoption? Little did Sarah know, though, her need for answers was about to lead her down a very slippery slope. After all, there was an even bigger secret buried within her mysterious past.
She Tried To Carry On With Her Life
But we're not there just yet. And in the years that followed, everything seemed to be looking up. To the naked eye, Sarah was on top of the world. Her love for theater had landed her an undergrad acting scholarship at West Virginia University. But that's not all.
The aspiring actress eventually decided to head out West, where she earned her MFA at The American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. But as she continued chasing a life in the spotlight, Sarah soon came to a life-changing realization: There was only one place where she could make those dreams a reality...
She Moved to L.A. To Become a Star
...Los Angeles. And as Sarah packed up her bags for the city of dreams, she was suddenly more hopeful than ever about her future. She was going to start fresh, to turn the page on her former chapter. Only as she stepped off the plane at LAX, she couldn’t have been more wrong.
What happened? Sure, her new reality as an actress looked very different than everything she once knew. But the truth was that West Virginia wasn't done with her just yet. And while Sarah was now thousands of miles away from home, it was suddenly as if she'd never left…
She Grew Homesick
Granted, Sarah was going places - there was no doubt about it. But her move away from home had actually brought her ten steps back: After all of these years, her parents' words had continued to stick by her - haunting her every waking thought. And now that she was in L.A? She simply couldn't ignore them any longer.
Where were her birth parents? Where did she really come from? Sarah didn’t know what to believe anymore. But she wanted answers, desperately. Only as the young woman set out for some much-needed clarity, she was about to be steered in a very risky direction...
She Attended a Life-Changing Seminar
As Sarah Culberson scurried inside the Landmark Forum’s front steps, she didn’t know what to expect. The self-help seminar she suddenly found herself enrolled in was going to provide her with some much-needed clarity - she was sure of it. But where would she even start?
As she took a seat inside the crowded lecture hall, everything was about to become clear. Sarah reached for her notebook as she began jotting down the speaker's opening words. But it was what he had to say next that stopped her in her tracks: "Where are you holding back in life?" And that's when it hit her…
Her Wake-Up Call
While there were endless other faces in attendance that fateful day, the speaker's prying words hit her hard. It was almost as if he'd... known: Sarah had indeed been walking on eggshells her entire life. From the moment Jim and Judy opened the lid on her adoptive past, the curious young girl had never been the same.
Despite all the love and years on her side, she simply couldn't get her parents' words out of her head. Sarah was desperate to learn the truth about her birth family. And it terrified her. What if they'd already turned the page on that chapter? But perhaps more importantly: What if they hadn't?
She Decided To Reopen Her Past
Sarah's mind was running wild. Those 7 words that seminar speaker had hurled her way had officially struck a chord: She was done holding back. It was time to confront her past, even if the truth wasn't what she wanted to hear. After all, if not now... when?
"I always had questions about my birth mother," Sarah confessed. "I wondered what she was like, if I looked like her." Only as she punched a detective's number into her phone, she couldn't fight the butterflies suddenly hijacking her stomach. She was really doing this. There was no going back.
Her Private Investigator Had a Few Leads
3 Hours and 25 dollars later, Sarah Culberson was one step closer to the truth: Her private investigator had dug up secrets - lots of them. Sarah raced to the phone to hear what he had to say, her heart racing like never before: She was about to get her answers. But what if they weren't what she'd hoped for?
Unfortunately, that's exactly what happened. "I learned that my mother passed away from cancer when I would've been 11," Sarah recalled. It was devastating, and then some. What was she like? Did they look alike? Sure enough, they did. "I learned that we had a similar personality. I even inherited her smile." But that's not all…
Discovering Distant Relatives in Maryland
As the detective continued to unpack his latest findings, Sarah raced to grab a pen. With shaking hands, she jotted down the address the investigator had suddenly shared with her. But what now? As she held the piece of paper holding her alleged Aunt and Uncle’s Maryland residence, she was overwhelmed.
Yes, she was officially that much closer to the truth. But Sarah Culberson still had a long way to go: "I realized I still had so many questions and little answers," she explained. She sat down, a fresh piece of paper and pen in hand, as a new idea suddenly popped into her head.
She Wrote Them a Letter
With shaky hands, Sarah poured her heart out on that piece of paper before her. She then raced to the post office to send it to her alleged relatives. But she still had lots to consider. Did they share her curiosity? Did they even know about her? 3 days later, and… nothing. She had yet to hear back from them. But would she ever?
Could she have been looking at a false lead, after all? Sure enough, 24 hours later, she was about to have her answer. As Sarah went to pick up her ringing phone, her heart suddenly stopped. She took a deep breath as the unfamiliar voice on the other end of the line blurted out 4 words: "We received your letter."
"It Was a Surreal Experience"
Sarah was speechless. Was she looking at the key to all of her answers? She was ready to find out. As she wiped the tears from her eyes, she began to ask the caller - her Aunt, Evelyn - everything; the questions, concerns, and doubts she’d kept bottled up inside her all these years.
But the truth was that Aunt Evelyn was just as overwhelmed. The baby girl she once helped look after 20+ years earlier was now back in her life, demanding answers. She handed the phone over to her husband. Only what happened next was nothing Sarah could've ever predicted. "It was a surreal experience," she recalled.
Sarah's Royal Lineage
"Do you know who you are?" her uncle suddenly asked. Little did he know, Sarah had spent 28 years wondering that exact question. What had she inherited from her birth parents? Perhaps their smile or beautifully bronzed skin? She was more than ready to have her answer.
Only as Sarah held the phone to her ear, she couldn't believe what she was hearing: She hailed from royalty. She was a Mahaloi, the granddaughter of a Paramount Chief - a princess. And her birth dad, Joseph Konia Kposowa, was still alive. He lived 4,000+ miles away in a village named Bumpe. "I honestly just couldn't believe it."
Confronting Her Birth Dad
From West Virginia to West African royalty, Sarah couldn’t believe where her journey had suddenly propped her. It was remarkable, something from her wildest dreams. But where would she even go from here? Sure, she’d always dreamed about finding her birth parents. But now that she had?
She couldn't ignore the questions - the anger - suddenly consuming her. Why had her birth dad left her? Why had he never reached out? Sure enough, just 14 days later, she was about to get those answers: Sarah received a call - from a foreign area code. Only as she hit the "Answer" button, suddenly she knew exactly who it was.
Their Emotional Phone Call
As Sarah held the receiver to her ear, her eyes suddenly welled up with tears. "The first thing he said to me was, 'Please forgive me,'" she recalled, as she listened to her birth father's voice for the first time in her life. It was surreal, almost like a dream.
As Joseph explained, he hadn't stopped thinking about his little girl ever since he let her go. "Your name changed. Everything had changed… I didn't know how to find you," he confessed. Sarah had gotten it all wrong, all along. "And I said, 'No - please forgive me. Because I've always believed you didn't want me in your life.'"
Why Her Birth Father Had Given Her up for Adoption
All of those feelings of resentment she'd kept carefully tucked away had suddenly vanished: Her father had never stopped looking for her. It was a thought too overwhelming to bear. But Sarah still had lots of questions. What exactly happened that led her to Mr. and Mrs. Culberson?
Back in 1976, Joseph was a foreign exchange student in West Virginia when he fell in love with Sarah's birth mom. But once she became pregnant, everything changed: They were not ready for parenthood. "We wanted to get you to a family who could really take care of you... give you everything you need,'" he recalled.
As Sarah continued chipping away at her past, she was met with an influx of emotions. She was happy, blessed that she finally had some answers after all of these years. But in getting them, she was also... sad. Sad for all of the time she’d missed out on with her birth father. Perhaps that’s why it’s no surprise what came next.
On a fateful day in 2004, Sarah hopped on a flight to West Africa as she set off to meet her birth father. But as she stepped foot off of that plane in Sierra Leone, she never could've prepared for what followed: There he was, standing at the airport gate - deep, brown eyes and a warm smile in tow. "It felt like coming home."
The Journey to Bumpe
Sarah raced towards the strange man as tears began to fill her eyes. Sure, he was a stranger. But it also felt like she'd known him her entire life. She squeezed her birth dad tight, unsure of what to even say. But Joseph was already 10 steps ahead of her: He handed her a green gown as they hopped in a cab towards Bumpe.
As Sarah looked out the window at the bumpy dirt road before them, it was almost as if she was dreaming. Here she was, 4,000+ miles away from home, sitting alongside her birth father as they headed towards his home. It was surreal. Only as they arrived at Bumpe's entrance hours later, she couldn't believe her eyes.
Her "Overwhelming" Greeting
"It was 100, 200, 300 - hundreds of people, singing and dancing, welcoming me to my family's village," Sarah recalled of the crowd suddenly surrounding their outdated Range Rover. She was overwhelmed with emotion, everything was happening so fast. But as she continued to scan her surroundings, suddenly, her jaw dropped.
"All the women who came forward were wearing the same green dress," Sarah recalled of the gown her father had instructed she wear. "It was shocking." If there was somehow any doubt before? Her arrival had officially said it all: She was their princess. "It was overwhelming… like a dream" - one she never wanted to wake up from.
Her Royal Responsibilities
But the truth was that life as royal called for more than just lush, green gowns and hoards of new admirers: Sarah was a princess now. And with that, came a new wave of responsibilities. But where would she even start? "My only guidance of what a princess was was what I saw in movies," Culberson confessed.
Safe to say, Sarah's impoverished "kingdom" was very different from the ones she'd seen on the big screen. But that's exactly why she wanted to help. "It's about walking in my great-grandfather and grandfather's footsteps… to keep moving things forward in the country," she revealed. And she set off to do exactly that…
Creating New Dreams for Herself
As for what that called for? Safe to say, Sarah Culberson was in over her head. Just a few months earlier, she was another girl out in Hollywood with a dream of making in big. But from the minute she first stepped off of that plane in Sierra Leone, none of that would ever be the same.
After all, a tragic civil war had just swept across the country - only 2 years prior to her arrival. Sierra Leone needed her help, desperately. Which is why while it wouldn’t be easy, the actress knew exactly what she had to do: She decided to put her dreams on hold as she embarked on her riskiest - and most rewarding - chapter yet.
Making a Difference
"I was like, 'OK, let's do this," she recalled of the events that soon followed. "Whatever it takes." Safe to say, Sarah Culberson stuck true to those words: It started with her non-profit Sierra Leone Rising - dedicated to rebuilding Bumpe High School - but it certainly didn't end there…
From her "Mask on Africa" campaign - devoted to fighting COVID-19 - to her female empowerment, the Princess's long list of accomplishments knew no end. "Our goal is to work together... to ensure that our children receive the best education possible so they can thrive, be aware of the world and make a difference," she gushed.
She's Headed for the Big Screen
There's no doubt about it: Sarah Culberson's journey to coming home was far from ordinary - even she would tell you that much. Perhaps that's why she decided to take a pen and paper to document it for the rest of us. And it wasn't long before it took the online world by storm.
Her 2009 memoir, A Princess Found, won hearts worldwide as Sarah opened up about her "journey through adoption, war, and forgiveness," as she put it. But believe it or not? That's not where her story even ends: "My memoir... is being turned into a feature film by Disney," the princess gushed of her upcoming adventure.
How Does Her Adoptive Family Feel
From her quest for answers to now, writing about it, viewers fell in love with Sarah's remarkable journey. But what about those who have been by her side from the very beginning? How did her adoptive parents truly feel about their little girl's documented dive into the past?
The answer was actually quite simple: “She went looking for the truth, and we supported her,” Judy Culberson proudly revealed. As she put it, she and Jim have been by their daughter’s side every step of the way. “We always knew there was a story... I [just] didn’t know that story would take us all the way to Africa.”
Her Thoughts on Moving to West Africa
Fast forward to today, though, and Judy and Jim's daughter's story indeed ended halfway across the world; something they never expected in their wildest dreams. But where does that leave her now? Would Sarah ever swap L.A. for another home - one 4,000+ miles away?
Sure, Sarah's heart will always belong in Sierra Leone. But the truth is that it also belongs elsewhere: West Virginia. "That is a responsibility that I am not interested in this lifetime," the princess explained of moving full-time to West Africa or ever becoming Chief. For now, at least…
"That's the Journey. And It Continues on…"
Well, what now? Where is Princess Sarah Culberson supposed to go from here? Will she continue to make up for lost time - 28 years worth - with her long-lost loved ones? Or perhaps will all of that distance drive a wedge between them? We guess only time will tell. As for what we do know?
While she may have turned the page on her former chapter, Sarah Culberson's story is just getting started. In fact, as she put it? Her time in West Africa goes way beyond revisiting her past. "This is about supporting and connecting - that's the journey. And it continues on…"
When a 20-something-year-old grad student set off to uncover her adoptive past, she never could have imagined the madness that'd eventually follow. But despite the heartbreak and hardships Sarah's faced along the way, she wouldn't have it any other way.
"I feel so blessed," the 28-year old gushed. After all, in searching for answers, Sarah went on to change more lives than her own. "I don't think it's any coincidence we were separated," she confessed. "I really think I was meant to help. That's why I was put on this Earth."