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DNA test helps St. Louis woman find her family

March 9, 2018

ST. LOUIS (AP) — A $79 online kit helped Toni DiPina begin to solve a mystery that has followed her since May 26, 1963.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that DiPina was abandoned as an infant that day on a vacant lot in an ailing St. Louis neighborhood.

She was found in a blue-checked dress and pink sweater with a cap sitting on a blanket amid the weeds and debris. No one ever claimed the 9-month-old little girl who didn’t cry when she was found.

But DiPina, at 55, has tried for years to get answers about her unknown family.

She made posts to social media, consulted a private investigator in St. Louis and was the subject of in-depth stories in the Post-Dispatch in 2008 and 2011. Still, no one came forward.

Then last year, DiPina discovered the key to the mystery: Her own DNA.

Now an ordained pastor working in Massachusetts, she ordered a test from an online ancestry website. The test kit would allow her DNA to be checked against millions of others in a database to find relatives.

When the small white box arrived, her congregation held hands and prayed over the test before she sent it away. They prayed for the abandoned baby left alone, but also for the woman of faith that she became who had lived her life without family.

That test allowed DiPina to arrive in St. Louis last week and hug a close blood relative for the first time, unleashing a complex mix of emotions and still more questions about how she ended up on that blanket alone that day in 1963.

DiPina still doesn’t know her real name. The name she knew as a child, Antoinette Baker, was chosen by a social worker. Doctors also assigned her a birthday, estimated by her size when she was found.

Antoinette was put into the foster care system and would go through 16 social workers and eight homes by the time she was 18.

Those lonely years left her with lifelong scars, she says.

She first lived with a woman in her 60s who made a living out of caring for 24 foster children over 34 years. The woman was a recluse who would not leave her chair in the home after she went blind.

Today DiPina describes the shame of life in that gloomy house where she was often unkempt, hungry and neglected. While she lived in the home, one of her four foster brothers died of malnourishment, she said.

But she survived, taking refuge in books and her faith, spending each Sunday at St. Philip’s Evangelical Lutheran Church.

DiPina was taken out of the home at age 10, when her foster mother retired, but life didn’t get easier.

She was adopted into a home where she endured five months of physical and sexual abuse before re-entering the foster system and going through a series of homes before she aged out of the system in the early 1980s.

But a key moment changed the trajectory of DiPina’s life. As a young woman, she answered a classified ad seeking a nanny for five boys in central Massachusetts. The family offered her airfare to Boston, use of a red Jeep and free time to take college classes.

With no one in her life who was keeping track of her well-being at that point, DiPina took the job and found a new life in New England: a college degree, a career, marriage, children and the decision to become a pastor.

DiPina is now a grandmother. She is an ordained minister and leads a United Church of Christ congregation in Northbridge, Mass.

She says she long ago realized she would likely never know her parents. She resigned herself to the mystery of her abandonment.

But a professor she met at seminary urged her to try again after hearing about the growing popularity of online DNA kits used to find distant relatives.

DiPina, somewhat reluctantly, ordered the test.

While little Antoinette Baker was growing up in St. Louis, Rosetta Awkard, then Rosetta Tyler, was a child on the South Side of Chicago.

She lived in the Englewood neighborhood and was one of 10 siblings. The crowded home where she grew up had even more children when her mother, Patsy, took in other family members or kids from the block that needed a place to stay.

Patsy kept a watchful eye, always making sure her kids came home by the time the street lights came on. But she also let them know they were well-loved, Awkard said.

As a child, Rosetta was introverted, preferring to be alone in her room listening to Elvis or Stevie Nicks records. She had a few close friends, but was mostly close to her family, especially her mother.

Still there were echoes of DiPina’s childhood trauma in Awkard’s life. She was sexually abused by a relative as a child and kept the secret for decades.

Awkard now lives near Columbus, Ohio. She still has a large family, though her mother died in 2002 and she lost two sisters, in 2010 and 2017.

Now 52, she didn’t expect to find a new family member.

She didn’t realize when her 23-year-old son, Ryne, decided to take an AncestryDNA test last year that finding distant relatives was even a possibility.

But his DNA was checked against more than 7 million people in the Ancestry.com database, according to the company.

DiPina came back as a second cousin and promptly messaged him. He didn’t respond at first, worried she was a scammer.

“He said I was typing weird, whatever that means,” DiPina said, laughing. “But he came around.”

Hoping to find a closer cousin, DiPina asked Ryne Awkard if his mother would take the test.

But at first, Rosetta Awkard was wary.

“I just didn’t know what it would open,” she said. “I was thinking, ‘Who is this person?’ I told her, ‘I don’t have any money. I don’t know what you want from me.’”

DiPina told her, “I’m not looking for that. I’m only looking for my family.”

Awkard finally decided, after hearing more about DiPina’s story, to send in a saliva sample.

She got the results early one morning in January and texted DiPina: “We’re first cousins!”

DiPina doesn’t get emotional easily, but after 50 years of searching, those words made her cry.

Awkard dropped her bags when she saw DiPina coming down the escalator in baggage claim at St. Louis Lambert International Airport Wednesday morning.

The two ran to each other and hugged, both standing at almost exactly the same 5-foot-flat height.

Awkard grabbed her new-found cousin’s face to look in her eyes.

“I’m in awe because you really look like my mom,” she said. “You have her eyes.”

By then, the cousins had begun speaking almost every day, sharing family stories, struggles and realizing that they enjoyed each other’s companionship.

“We’re three years apart and I know that if we had known each other when we were kids, we would have been friends,” DiPina said shortly after meeting her cousin. “So there’s a lot of emotions. I’m elated but I’ve also had to mourn all the times we could have had.”

Awkard said she already believed DiPina was family, but it was affirmed when she saw her in person.

“It’s like looking at my mother,” she said, her voice breaking. “I can’t get over it. It’s like my mother is here with me again.”

Awkard beams when she looks at her new cousin, but the discovery came with complications.

Awkard realized: One of her aunts or uncles had to be the parent of an abandoned child.

“I keep thinking that if my mom had known there is no way this would have happened,” Awkard said with her hand on her cousin’s arm. “We would have taken her in, no question. She didn’t have to go through any of that. And to know that someone in my own family did this — I have a lot of anger.”

Awkard says she’s now on a mission to find DiPina’s parent within her large family.

“I know what family secrets can do from my own life,” she said. “They can damage generations, so I’m not keeping this in.”

Awkard said she hopes more members of her family will take a DNA test to find answers.

“There has been some resistance,” Awkard said. “But I’m going to keep going. I’m like a detective on my mini-mission.”

DiPina still hopes that one day she might get to meet a sibling, but said she holds no expectation.

“I’m not angry at the mother or father who left me,” she said. “I know they must have had their reasons, but I want to hear that story.”

DiPina looked over at her cousin who she now talks to every day.

“But I got to meet my first cousin . my family,” she said. “If that’s what God allows for me that’s enough. Meeting her, it was like coming home.”

Another twist in DiPina’s story brought her and Awkard together in St. Louis.

A center dedicated to the well-being of children is soon to open on the very lot on Bell Avenue at Vandeventer Avenue where she was abandoned in 1963.

The Deaconess Center for Child Well-Being will host three local organizations dedicated to child advocacy in its modern 20,000-square-foot facility.

The center’s chief executive, the Rev. Starsky Wilson, said the organization had never heard DiPina’s story when they chose the location, but learned the history when Nancy Cambria, a former reporter at the Post-Dispatch, noticed the connection.

“It became for us a guiding light for why we have to do this work,” Wilson said. “Why it’s so important. It was also a sign to us that God was in the work.”

The new center asked DiPina to make the sermon at the center’s consecration last Thursday, and she invited Awkard to the event.

“It is surreal to stand before you today on the very place and ground that changed the direction of my life as an infant forever,” she told the attendees, as her cousin looked on.

The center, DiPina said, may one day change the future for children like she was years ago in St. Louis — impoverished, lonely and needing people who cared.

___

Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, http://www.stltoday.com

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