When Kelli read the message, she froze thinking that her next move would likely change her life forever.
It was a note from a fellow 23andMe customer, who’d been identified as a second cousin. She had sent Kelli a message asking to share family information. The cousin – who Kelli never knew before – stated that she’d like to connect.
She was raised as the only child of a single mom and knew nothing about her dad. Once when Kelli was five, she’d asked her mother, “Why don’t I have a father?”
Her mother immediately broke down.
“My mom started crying and said, ‘That’s just the way it is.’”
It was so painful that Kelli simply never asked her mother again. It took 30 years and then, testing with 23andMe for Kelli to answer that long nagging question.
“I never asked again because our relationship was so perfect, and I (wrongly) assumed that either something bad had happened to my mom or when she had told my father she was pregnant he wanted nothing to do with me,” Kelli said.
But then she made a connection to a second cousin using 23andMe, and together they learned the truth.
It all started because Kelli wanted to use 23andMe to learn a little more about herself.
“I never dreamed of what would happen next.”
Kelli decided to go ahead and connect with her second cousin and wrote her back. She told her that she didn’t know anything about her father. That her mother had gotten pregnant as a 19 year-old college freshman, then dropped out of school and moved back in with her parents to have Kelli.
After filling her cousin in on her story, Kelli gave her a way out.
“I gave her the option of ending contact with me,” she said.
But the opposite happened. Her cousin contacted her own parents, who said they wanted to help. They were thrilled that they found Kelli.
“And even if my father didn’t want to know me, they did,” Kelli said.
She also wanted to make sure her own family was OK with what she was doing.
“Probably one of the hardest things I had to do was tell (my mom),” Kelli said.
All the pain of the past was gone. Her mother and her family supported what she was doing.
Kelli had grown up in her grandparents’ home, with her mother and her aunt, who was 14 when Kelli was born. It was a large and loving family, and Kelli had always been close to her mom and her aunt, who was more like a sister.
As she connected with her cousin, the two began what amounted to a game of detective. Her new found cousins got tested, and they were able to see which side the family Kelli was related to. Then using what they knew about where Kelli’s mom had gone to college, they figured out which male cousins may have been at Penn State around that time.
Then they tested who they thought was Kelli’s grandfather. He was and that lead them to Kelli’s biological father.
“His and his family’s reactions were amazing, they were so excited to know about me,” Kelli said, who received messages from new family members welcoming her into the family.
When her biological father’s test results came in, his sister got him an “It’s a girl” balloon.
Kelli met her new found family in person in June.
“They even surprised me with presents and a cake for my birthday that was coming up, offering to sing to me 36 times to make up for the years they weren’t there,” she said.
Besides finding her biological father, she now has a new stepmom, a sister, a brother, a niece, grandparents and new uncles, aunts and cousins.
Her mother encouraged her to make the connections and has supported her all the way. Her mother’s father, her “Papap,” had passed away a few years ago. He had always been like a father to her, and for a time she felt pangs of guilt. She didn’t want it to appear that she was trying to replace him, but her family assured her that he would’ve approved.
Since connecting with her new found family, Kelli has moved back home to Pittsburgh from Chicago to get to know them better. She’d grown up just 30 miles from them. She’s learned that she and her biological father share an aptitude for math and a love of pizza, and she’s already grown close to him.
“I’d say right now we have a real father-daughter relationship,” Kelli said. “He insists I call him ‘dad,’ invites me to family vacations and we’re getting to know each other.”
She hesitates for a moment and adds:
“He cries sometimes when he thinks of how much of my life he missed, but we’re going forward now,” she said.