MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) – Growing up, Merritt Gambino had heard whispers that her mother had given up a baby for adoption when she was a teenager.
Gambino said she never confronted her mother about it. But she added that she fantasized about having a long-lost brother. She named him Jonathan and figured he was living in Mississippi, where her mother attended college.
Thanks to the miracle of modern science and the exploding popularity of home DNA kits, Gambino recently discovered she did have another sibling. Only it wasn’t a brother; it was a sister. And she didn’t live in Mississippi; she lived not far from her own home.
Meet Kristin Nava, who connected with Gambino and the rest of her biological family through 23andMe, which uses saliva samples to tell customers their genetic profiles – and connect them to relatives who share that DNA.
Nava, a 32-year-old yoga instructor, said she took the DNA test mainly to research inherited health problems she should be aware of. Soon, she found her half-brother, and through him a whole new family – two half-brothers and two half-sisters.
Raised by a Jordanian family who adopted her and another child, Nava said she could not shake the feeling she was alone in some way.
“I’ve always felt different, and it’s been wild to meet people that look like me,” she said. “The
first time I ever saw somebody that looked like me was when my son was born. So, when I met my siblings and saw what they looked like it was pretty mind blowing.”
Nava missed the chance to meet her biological mother, who died two years ago. But Nava said she has gotten to know her through pictures and stories. It turns out she and her mother followed a similar path. Both grew up in Mobile. Both went to St. Paul’s Episcopal School. Both even had the same theater teacher. And it was all a coincidence.
Nava said she marvels at how little distance separated her from her blood relatives.
“They were so close this whole time. I know, I’ve seen pictures of my mother that we walked down the same streets,” she said. “And you know, we talked down the same hallways in school. And we had the same teachers.”
Aushawna Collins, a spokeswoman for 23andMe, said the company does not keep statistics on how many of these kinds of family reunions its service has made possible.
“However, I can confidently say thousands of customers have found family through our DNA Relatives, the completely optional feature that connects 23andMe customers with others in the database with whom they share DNA,” she wrote in an email to FOX10 News.
For her part, Gambino said she did not know what to expect when she and her siblings met Nava for the first time in January at The Fort in Spanish Fort. But she added that she felt an instant connection.
“She looks so much like my mom that it would be hard to say, ‘Oh no, I don’t know her so she's not.’ So yes, it’s obvious that she's my sister,” she said. “But we haven’t really had the chance to really get to know each other a whole lot on like a on a sister kind of level.”
If not for brother Reid Gambino, Kristin Nava may never have discovered her biological family. They connected because Reid Gambino also took the23andMe test. Coincidentally, he took the test for the same reason Nava said – to spot potential health conditions.
“She looks so much like us. As soon as I saw her, it was like, there is no doubt,” he said. “Like, it was just obvious. And it was kind of haunting in that way. … It was like it was like the reincarnation almost.”
Gambino said the similarities are eerie and go way beyond physical resemblance, making him think about the age-old nature-vs.-nurture debate.
“We had so much in common, like stuff that I would figure would be kind of like, just preferences and stuff like that,” he said. “But they all seem to line up. … You know, it’s looks, very similar tastes and music, and, like, similar anxieties and like.”
For Nava, apprehension quickly turned to excitement.
“It was scary when I first met them when I was just walking, you know, into a group of strangers,” she said. “But it was odd because once we sat down and started looking at each other and start talking, it felt like I knew who they were. And it was just such a powerful feeling, like, these are my people.”