When a Corvallis resident took an over-the-counter DNA test, she was shocked to learn of a long-lost relative living on the other side of the country. Stories like hers are becoming more common, thanks to the increasing accessibility of ancestral testing coupled with our seemingly instinctual yearning to learn who we are by exploring the differences and similarities in our unique chemistry. The events following this DNA test brought souls together who had been separated by time and the unknown, connecting them in a journey that will likely permanently impact the course of their lives.
Theresa Stephens of Corvallis needed to find out if she was at risk for Parkinson’s disease. Her brother has the illness and her father had died of it, so her doctor suggested that she take a DNA test to find out if she was genetically predisposed. Her insurance wouldn’t cover an expensive DNA test from the doctor, so she did what more and more of us have been doing: she ordered a test from genetic testing company 23andMe, spit in the tube, and sent it out for evaluation.
Just for kicks, Theresa decided to take the genealogy test in addition to the one for genetic health. When she received her results, she was relieved to find that she did not have the Parkinson’s gene, and turned her attention to her ancestry results. In the family member section, she saw a name that she did not recognize: Kelly Pauline, 24 percent related, probable niece.
When a person takes a DNA test from 23andMe, their genetic information is stored and compared with others who take the test, and possible relatives are listed in the results. Theresa, thinking that there must have been a mistake, initially laughed it off, but a voice in the back of her head kept asking, “what if?” 23andMe offers a communication channel through the company for people to interact without receiving personal contact information, similarly to Craigslist, so Theresa reached out.
Theresa paraphrased for us her initial message to Kelly, “Hey Kelly, My name’s Theresa and I live in Oregon, and you show up as my niece, lol. Obviously you’re not my niece, but that’s… weird.”
Kelly, 34 years old and now living in D.C, revealed to Theresa that her mother and brother live in Oregon, and she was born in Hood River in the 80s. Theresa’s thoughts immediately went to her brother James, who lived in, you guessed it, Hood River in the 80s. The two had exchanged contact information by that time, and later that day, Kelly texted Theresa, “I’m shaking right now.”
Kelly, confused and more than a little freaked out, could not bring herself to contact her mother in that moment, so Theresa reached out to her brother James, who was initially confused as to the notion that he might have a child as well. Theresa mentioned Kelly’s mother by name, Danielle Banning, and it all came back to him.
Danielle and James had a brief relationship in the early 80s, before she had gotten back together with the man who she had been with for years prior and would eventually marry — the man that Kelly had always known to be her biological father. According to Theresa, her brother had wondered if the child was his, but didn’t want to get in the way of Danielle’s marriage. Relationships are complicated things. The man who raised Kelly passed away some years ago from a disease similar to Parkinson’s, which is coincidentally the reason Kelly had taken the test in the first place.
Armed with the answer, Theresa immediately called Kelly. “It was tough to know what words to use,” said Theresa.
“I can’t imagine getting the news from anybody else,” said Kelly. “She was just so sensitive to my needs, and very warm and welcoming. She helped me through that whole process.”
“It came in waves,” Kelly explained of all the thoughts, emotions, and revelations she had to now confront.
“I went through a couple of different phases: shock and disbelief, and then curiosity. I was really interested to learn more.”
Kelly had plenty to catch up on, so Theresa started sharing photos and information about the family with her. “I was seeing pictures of my half-sister and saying ‘oh my gosh, we look alike,’ this is so surreal… It’s such a crazy feeling, to see yourself in other people – strangers.”
Naturally, Kelly was curious about how it was that she never knew about this other man who was her biological father.
“I think because I had such an amazing childhood, I didn’t have any feelings of anger or sadness necessarily, but I had questions. My mom and I have such a close relationship, she was able to be transparent with me.”
“You know, things happen in your 20s, right?” laughed Kelly. “I can’t say that I can totally understand what she was up against, but I think that she made the best decision that she could.” James and Danielle have since reconnected in platonic friendship
Theresa and Kelly quickly bonded during their correspondence, and they started making plans for Kelly, along with her husband and baby, to come to Oregon and meet their new family members in January. Toward the end of December, Kelly started to feel nervous and reserved, “I’m going to meet this whole crew, and they’re going to be evaluating me,” she mused of her thought process. “Am I going to fit in? Is it going to feel like family right away?”
Face to Face
Earlier this month, Kelly arrived at PDX, and was greeted her long-lost relatives in the terminal. “My daughter is 17 months old and pretty shy around strangers,” said Kelly. “When we got to the airport, she just latched onto James, and he was able to hold her for almost an hour… she innately had this feeling of comfort and family.”
On January 11, Theresa and about 40 family members threw Kelly a party and family dinner at The Clubhouse in Adair Village.
“There were a couple of cousins of mine in my own age bracket, and we just really connected right away. I was just kind of staring at them and thinking, ‘wow, I fit in here,’” beamed Kelly.
“I’ve always felt very different from the family that I grew up in,” she explained. This was never a negative thing for her, but she had always wondered about certain characteristics, like mannerisms and motivations, and considered their origins. In her new family, Kelly was fascinated to find so many similarities, like facial features and even allergies.
One of the deepest connections that Kelly has made has been with Theresa. Kelly, a very professionally focused digital entrepreneur, has always wondered about her personality type and where it might have come from. Her and Theresa are very similar in terms of professional drive; Theresa has enjoyed a long career at HP, and is now a part owner of the first recreational marijuana farm in Benton County, a business The Advocate had reported on in 2013. Kelly had finally started discovering those missing puzzle pieces of her identity.
After the party, Theresa brought Kelly and family to Theresa’s beach house on the Oregon coast for the weekend.
Kelly spoke with The Advocate toward the end of her visit, and was elated from her experience, despite any reservations she may have had prior to the trip. “This moment in time has really felt like family,” she said.
Regardless of the overwhelmingly positive experience, she still grapples with what this experience means. “I grew up with this father that I loved, cherished, honored so much throughout my life. That piece of not being biologically related to him is still hard to accept.”
Like us all, Theresa, Kelly, James, and Danielle are just four souls swirling in the void, but maybe there is meaning to be found in their story. The relationships that we have with one another might be something more than interactions of convenience, and somehow exist on a cellular level. Do the CGAT’s of our genetic material scream out for a connection with deoxyribonucleic acid of a similar length and structure? If so, it’s an attribute that was built into us eons ago, and is still shaping our lives while helping us to learn who we are.
By Jay Sharpe