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An unexpected twist in the story

A search for biological parents, turns up surprising results 

by Olivia Murray

A private investigator, a letter fallen into unintended hands and a phone call. These things, when combined, drastically altered the trajectory of Sarah Culberson’s — or, rather, Princess Sarah Culberson’s — life in 2004.

Adopted shortly after her first birthday by Jim and Judy Culberson of Morgantown, Culberson was raised in Appalachia. She attended Cheat Lake elementary and junior high schools before attending University High School. During her adolescence, Culberson was  involved in extracurricular activities, including  basketball and track. 

The multi-talented Culberson, however, did not confine her interests or passion to sports. She attended West Virginia University, for which her adoptive father worked, where she studied theater and received a bachelor’s degree in fine arts. 

“[I] love WVU. I had so much fun always going to the Mountaineer football games and the basketball games,” Culberson said. 

After her time at WVU, Culberson relocated to the West Coast to further her education. She attended a graduate program at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, Calif., before moving to Los Angeles to pursue a career in television and film.

“It was a big change to be in a city with a lot of hustle and bustle,” Culberson said of her move across the country. However, she found comfort in the mountains and greenery  in California, parts that she enjoyed most about her home in West Virginia. 

In 2003, when Culberson decided  she wanted to find  her birth parents, she was disappointed to learn that  journey came too late to meet her birth mother. 

“She passed away of cancer, so I never got the chance to meet her, but I got to hear stories and see pictures of her and meet some family, which was really, really special,” Culberson said.

Interacting with her birth mother’s family led Culberson to begin the search for her biological father.  Culberson hired a private investigator — a “friend of a friend” — who assisted her in the search as a favor.  

“Within three hours, I had all the information I needed for $25 instead of thousands of dollars, which is what I thought was going to happen,” Culberson said. 

Culberson opted to avoid calling her biological father, fearing  the emotionally charged reason behind the call might result in a less positive experience. Instead, she chose to write him a letter. 

What Culberson hadn’t anticipated was that her father and his brother share the same first name and last name — Joseph Kposowa — though their middle names differ. Her letter ended going to  her uncle.

Four days after sending the letter, Culberson received a phone call from her aunt Evelyn, who was happy to  hear from her biological niece and recalled babysitting Culberson when her mother would shop for groceries. 

During the  call, her aunt and uncle explained the mystery that was Culberson’s biological background. Her uncle had come to West Virginia from Sierra Leone, West Africa, and attended WVU, later encouraging and assisting his brother, Culberson’s birth father, to attend college in the state as well. Later in the conversation, Culberson’s uncle revealed a rather shocking and unexpected piece of Culberson’s biological heritage. 

“My uncle was the one who said, ‘You know, Sarah, you are from a royal family. Your great-grandfather was a [Paramount] Chief, [and] your grandfather … you can be chief someday. You’re a princess in this country.’ ”

Culberson’s uncle said her grandfather had  been knighted Justice of the Peace in England and  her biological family had been doing philanthropic work in Sierra Leone for years. 

“I was completely overwhelmed and thinking ‘What in the world is going on? This is amazing,’ ”  Culberson said. 

That information   influenced the path  Culberson chose to take, she said. She visited Sierra Leone for the first time in 2004, just two years after the conclusion of the 11-year-long Sierra Leone Civil War. 

“It was a huge reality check and an eye-opener to see what happens after a war. It was very confronting and also really important to see,” Culberson said. 

Culberson recalled seeing destroyed buildings, including a school that her grandfather had helped build, and people struggling to survive with amputations  in the aftermath of the war. Culberson said  witnessing how people were living in a place where her family also lived forced her to adopt a different perspective on life and fostered her  sense of responsibility as a princess of Sierra Leone. 

“I came back, and I said, ‘I can’t just go back to acting and act like I didn’t see any of this,’ ” she said. 

From that trip to Sierra Leone was born Sierra Leone Rising, a nonprofit organization co-founded by Culberson. The focus of the nonprofit is public health in Sierra Leone, with a focus on education, female empowerment and supporting the communities there. 

Since the founding of the organization, Culberson has taken students to Sierra Leone to provide aid to its residents. She intended to take a group of students from Johns Hopkins University on a trip, but was thwarted by the 2014 Ebola outbreak. 

“One of the main things we’re focused on is trying to get clean drinking water [there],” Culberson said.

She said eight wells were dug through the nonprofit with the help of Rotary International, one Leonean (Bo) Rotary, and two United States Rotary clubs, one of which is in Morgantown. Culberson  said while the wells are still functional, she learned of the severity of the continued need for drinking water in Sierra Leone when she visited the country in December 2019. 

She said her boyfriend, George, was approached by a woman while drinking from a water bottle. 

“There was only like an inch and a half of water left in his bottle, and this woman came up and asked, ‘Can I have the rest of your water?’ And in that moment, it was this wake-up call for the need of clean drinking water in the region and in the provinces.”

Subsequently, Culberson contacted World Hope — an organization that had provided assistance in  digging  the previous  wells in Sierra Leone — and reiterated her desire to solve the problem of undrinkable water in Sierra Leone. 

Culberson said the wells cost approximately $11,000 each to dig due to the necessary depth  to avoid the risk of contamination. These wells are preferable, though, as they last considerably longer than hand-dug wells, which easily run dry or become contaminated. 

Sierra Leone Rising is also in the process of constructing a prosthetic center for amputees in Sierra Leone.

 “There’s a little girl … she’s six years old, and we have gotten to know her and her family, and she got an infection in her leg and she had to have it amputated. So she’s crawling in the dirt all the time, she can’t run and play, she doesn’t have a leg.”

An organization in Ghana recently helped Sierra Leone Rising raise funds via a Zoom fundraiser to transport the girl to Ghana in January to help her adjust her hip and be fitted for a prosthetic leg. 

“Our goal is also to get funds for two to three students with a college degree to actually go to Ghana to be trained at this center to come back to Sierra Leone to start our own prosthetic and physical therapy center,” Culberson said.

 She said  this project would cost about $10,000 a year per student and  the organization is working to raising those funds. 

Additionally, Sierra Leone Rising has partnered with Days for Girls to supply young women in Sierra Leone with sanitary napkins and other menstrual products. Culberson specified that the organization originally partnered with the Morgantown faction of Days for Girls, where local women sewed washable, reusable sanitary napkins and sent them to Bumpe. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, fabric from the project was used for a mask initiative sponsored by Sierra Leone Rising. 

Culberson is also a diversity and inclusion speaker and has spoken at several universities and organizations such as Captial One, Prudential and Danaher. Furthermore, she co-wrote a memoir that tells her story, “A Princess Found,” which is  being turned into a film produced by Stephanie Allain, the first African American to produce the Academy Awards. 

For more information on  Culberson, visit

To get involved in supporting communities in Sierra Leone or donate to Sierra Leone Rising, visit

“A Princess Found: An American Family, an African Chiefdom, and the Daughter Who Connected Them All” is available on or in Barnes & Noble bookstores. 

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