BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. — While all of us wait to reunite with family members once the pandemic eases up, five family members are excited to unite for the very first time.
A few months ago, with the help of genetic results from 23andMe, five siblings in five different states learned of their relationship and connected using Zoom calls and text messages.
"Those feelings, still to this day, are still so top-notch. When I talk about it or think about it I still get goosebumps," Jennilyn Hamm said.
Elaine Otway lives in Lake Kiowa, Texas. John Schiavo lives in Boynton Beach, Florida. They grew up with their shared parents and eventually welcomed half-sister Irene Schiavo, who lives in Denver, Colorado.
23andMe revealed a set of twin sisters who shared their father, John, Senior. Karla Lynch who lives in Strasburg, Pennsylvania, and Jennilyn Hamm, who lives in Smithtown, New York. The twin sisters didn’t know the man they called dad their whole life wasn’t of blood relation.
"There are still a million questions, but those we’ll never get the answers to, and we just have to accept what it is, and we happily accept what this is. And I’m very happy to have found our siblings and to know that we have this whole other side to our family that we never even knew about,” Lynch said.
The twins say they’ve remarked to each other many times through the years that it felt there was a piece missing.
“Growing up both me and my sister felt like we were missing something, we weren’t whole. And that feeling had carried on into adulthood. And once this was discovered, I felt like there was huge healing. That hole was filling up and I no longer feel like there’s something else out there. That I really feel complete now,” Hamm said.
The siblings said they have several hobbies in common, and all share a deep love for animals.
"For us, it was just an instant warm connection that we all felt and it just felt normal. Very fortunate for that as well,” Karla Lynch said.
Some of the siblings share a passion for cooking and baking. They’re now shuttling homemade cookies across the country, swapping old photos, and trying to catch up face to face on Zoom.
"It's crazy to be able to look at them and be able to see my dad. Our dad. Right there,” John Schiavo, Jr. said.
The physical similarities stem from mannerisms. The family has even taken time to compare photos at different stages of life.
"I think the first time we were all on Zoom, we were all playing with our hair and it was just very interesting to see these little mannerisms that you see where you come from you see the similarities,” Lynch said.
While there were inklings of some kind of a story about siblings to the two eldest children through other relatives, it wasn’t until August when the pieces came together.
The genetic testing and analysis company 23andMe notified the group of some new possible genetic matches in their family tree. One conversation led to another, with seemingly countless questions.
"When all this happened there was all this confusion. Did he know, how could he know, did he not know, how could he know and not be there? And all of these questions were bombarding me,” explained the youngest sibling Irene Schiavo.
Irene questioned extended family members and beyond hoping for more insight. She says the result helped her heal.
"I called old neighbors, who maybe they were having a conversation in the street one day. And out of that, I got a myriad of incredible stories about our dad that I just never knew. Things that he said to a cousin, things that he said to a neighbor,” she said.
The shared father, John Sr, passed away in 1990. The mother of the two eldest siblings, who grew up with their shared father, and the mother of the twins have both passed away. They are left to try to put the pieces together of what happened and why. They still haven’t figured out how the parents had met, and they may never know.
"It's 50 years of not being with them, around them, and their families. So it's a little disappointing. But I'm happy that we’re able to find this out through this wonderful thing called 23andMe," John Schiavo, Jr. said.
Hamm shares a different shade of the same emotions.
"As a little girl, I was upset not growing up with a dad. Knowing today that I did have a father who could have stepped up and been that role model father figure for me, and I was denied. My twin sister and I were denied that. [It] was hard. It was a hard pill to swallow in the beginning," Hamm said.
As the discovery unfolded in the middle of a pandemic, they have kept their meetings to a virtual setting until the time comes when they can physically hug and greet each other.
"We're just so excited that we want to get together somewhere and soon," Otway laughed.
Now, they meet for a Zoom call for two hours every Sunday, and text each other day, sharing a sense of closeness and communication.
Genetic site 23andMe says this type of reunion story is growing more common with their services.
"Although 23andMe was not designed specifically to help people confirm parentage or find biological parents, our DNA Relatives tool does help people find and connect with participating genetic relatives. This feature is completely optional, meaning customers must actively choose to participate and are informed upfront that by using the tool, they may discover unexpected relationships,” according to Communications Director Andy Kill.
23andMe also said it offers additional support, information, and resources to customers who are navigating new roads.
"We've created a specific help page as a resource for those looking for more information on the accuracy of our relationship predictions, stories from others who may have experienced a similar situation, and suggested resources for additional counseling support such as BetterHelp and Talkspace," Kill said.
The siblings can’t wait until their in-person reunion.
"It's a wonderful thing that that question mark was always inside me is no longer a question," Hamm said.
This story was first reported by Ashleigh Walters at WPTV in West Palm Beach, Florida.