Cribmates in Romanian orphanage reunited as roommates at UW-Whitewater
WHITEWATER—Eighteen years ago, they were cribmates in a Romanian orphanage.
Today, Elena Heimark and Rachel Murphy are roommates at UW-Whitewater.
Taking their first steps into adulthood side-by-side as college freshmen is as natural to them as taking their first steps together as curious toddlers, even though they didn’t see each other for years in between while they were busy growing up.
They were 2 years old when their parents traveled halfway around the world to adopt them and bring them home to Wisconsin—Elena to West Bend and Rachel to South Milwaukee.
There’s a picture of the girls sitting on the steps of the orphanage the day they left. Each is wearing brand new sneakers and adorable outfits their parents picked out for them when they were still imagining what it would be like to be their parents.
Once in Wisconsin, their moms arranged occasional play dates to keep the girls connected. There’s a picture of them giggling and spinning together in a tire swing. Elena, who is one month and two days older, is a whole head taller than Rachel. You can see their bond. But nothing foretells just how much alike they will be as 18-year-olds.
They have vivid memories of their early years together.
“We loved playing hide and seek,” Rachel recalled.
“She’d get mad because I would get bored and leave while she was still hiding,” Elena said, turning to Rachel.
Their moms stayed in touch through elementary, middle and high school, comparing notes on how the girls were doing. But by the time Rachel and Elena were 7 or 8 years old, their time was consumed by school and sports. Rachel’s family moved from South Milwaukee to Delafield when she was 11.
“I thought of Elena a lot when we didn’t see each other for those years,” Rachel said recently, as the girls chatted in their cozy dorm room about how they started life together, drifted apart, and got back together.
“I would always ask my mom, ‘When are we going to see them again?’” Rachel said.
Elena hadn’t forgotten Rachel, either.
“For me, life was hectic,” Elena said, “but I knew from the beginning that a part of me was missing.”
When they were high school juniors, Rachel found Elena’s sister, Nicole, on Facebook. Elena didn’t have a Facebook account.
Reconnected via text message
Nicole immediately remembered Rachel, and gave her Elena’s cell number.
They plotted a Thanksgiving Day surprise. The first text from Rachel to Elena came while Elena’s family was in the car, on the way to Elena’s grandmother’s house. Elena had no idea who was texting her because she didn’t recognize the phone number.
Rachel continued to string along a confused Elena after the family arrived at their destination. Elena was holding a box of ornaments for her grandma’s Christmas tree when Rachel finally texted, “Don’t you remember your own cribmate?”
Elena froze, and then dropped the box of ornaments on her foot.
“I was jumping up and down and thinking, ‘It’s Rachel! It’s Rachel!’” Elena recalled. “I remember (Nicole’s) huge smile, like ‘You’re welcome,’ and I gave her a huge hug.”
The texting continued through high school. And the more they learned about each other, the more they realized they had in common.
Elena was on the track team and played tennis, volleyball and basketball in high school. Rachel did track and tennis in high school, and played volleyball and basketball in middle school. They both were “band geeks” who played the clarinet.
It’s no coincidence they both ended up at UW-Whitewater.
Elena picked the school first, and told Rachel. Rachel had narrowed her college search to three schools: UW-Waukesha, Waukesha County Technical College and UW-Whitewater.
“I wanted to stay close to home,” Rachel said. “When Elena told me she was going to Whitewater, that helped me make my decision. We thought it would be nice to share this new experience.”
“We had so many other milestones together,” Elena said. “Why not another?”
Their parents initially tried to talk them out of being roommates.
“Our parents tried to tell us two best friends as roommates doesn’t always work out,” Elena said.
They took a month-long summer class together at UW-Whitewater, which also gave them a trial run as roommates.
During that class, they took a personality test with 65 questions, Elena recalled. They not only shared the same overall score, they scored the exact same points on each question, they said.
Rachel is an only child. Elena has two sisters, Nicole and Jenna. While the three sisters have a great time together and share several similarities, Elena said, they look nothing alike. Nicole has blonde hair, Jenna has red hair, and Elena is a brunette.
“I would always look at pictures of Rachel and I when we were young,” Elena said. “I thought to myself, well, since she looks like me then, she would look similar to me now.”
The day they arrived at UW-Whitewater for the month-long summer class was the first time they saw each other in a decade.
“I remembered her being so much younger,” Elena recalled. “So to see her grown up was pretty amazing.”
“There’s some connection, I feel like,” Elena added.
“Maybe we’re cousins,” Rachel said.
They finish each other’s sentences and have similar likes and dislikes.
“We cannot live without applesauce,” Elena said.
“And we both love lots of onions,” Rachel said. “And Apple Jacks (cereal).”
They enjoy the same TV shows—old movies on the Lifetime channel and Family Feud on the game channel.
They both like to play pool and bowl.
Where one is, the other often isn’t far away.
“Our RA’s and teachers mix us up,” Rachel said. “Some people think we’re the twins on the third floor.”
They have three of their five classes together this semester, and they share the same friends.
Rachel, who has wanted to be a teacher since age 2 or 3, is studying to be an elementary and special education teacher. Elena is pursuing her longtime dream of becoming a marine biologist.
“It felt like a part of me that has been missing for a while suddenly came back,” Rachel said. “After living with her for a few months now, I finally feel like I have a sister… We are alike in so many ways, and I finally feel like I have found that last missing piece to the puzzle.”
“I think it’s a huge milestone for us being in college,” Elena said. “And it’s such a privilege we’re both here.”
Their parents, Vince and Janet Murphy and Susie and Brian Heimark, are glad that the girls are back together and sharing a room.
It’s another big step for both families, though UW-Whitewater isn’t nearly as far away as Romania, where their journey began.
“This one’s scarier,” Vince Murphy said of the college milestone.
“But it’s nice that it’s with someone you know,” Brian Heimark said.
“A good family,” added Janet Murphy.