When Gayle Helps was a teenager and looked at herself in the mirror, she saw a stranger.
"I wanted to see my [biological] family, my ancestors," the 57-year-old Montrealer said in an interview. When she was still in kindergarten, Helps learned she was adopted. She immediately wanted to uncover the identity of her birth parents, and has been trying to find them ever since.
Over the years that followed, Helps did some sleuthing, scouring birth records and other documents, even travelling to the township outside Montreal where she believed her birth mother was from. Three decades ago, she learned that her biological mom had passed away before they had a chance to meet. She couldn't find the name of her birth father.
So, like a growing number of people, Helps went online.
It was there that she learned about DNA Detectives, a Facebook group run by volunteers who call themselves "search angels" and who help adoptees, sperm donor kids, and others who are hunting for their biological relatives.
DNA Detectives, which boasts more than 24,000 members, began in February 2015, said CeCe Moore, its founder, which she helps run from San Clemente, Calif. Moore calls herself a genetic genealogist. She consults on the PBS show "Finding Your Roots," and her company The DNA Detectives works with with the media on stories related to DNA, promoting genetic genealogy education through conferences and seminars.
Thanks to cheaper and more available DNA sequencing technology, and online networks like this Facebook group, it's easier to do this kind of search than ever. Anyone who wants to find their birth parents, or learn more about their ancestors, no longer has to rely on sperm banks and digging through decades-old obituaries. Digital tools and DNA home testing kits are opening history's door wider.
Facebook's DNA Detectives is part of the same trend that spawned Ancestry.com and 23andMe.com. But donor anonymity is still a controversial issue, whether from the perspective of the sperm donor or the children.
The laws regarding opening sealed adoptions records vary across North America, with some US states allowing open records. Canadian provinces such as Ontario and British Columbia have made it easier to uncover adoption records.
At DNA Detectives, members post a question or story, and people pipe up with suggestions. The questions come often from adoptees looking to find the identities of their birth parents, or those left in the dark about their ancestral lineage. Volunteers who feel they know the finer points of genealogy will answer questions on the group or work one-on-one with adoptees to guide them.
Volunteers encourage members to take DNA tests, offered through sites including Ancestry.com, and to look with genetic matches within its database.
The person you're looking for has to be in one of these databases too, in order for this type of matching to work. With an estimated 2.3 million people on Ancestry.com alone, the chances of finding that needle in the haystack are better than ever.
On Facebook, DNA Detectives doesn't exist as a solo savior. There are similar groups, but none are reportedly as popular. "Most [of the group's members] don't have a science background," Moore told me. "They need someone to explain the methods and techniques and to have a community where they feel supported."
After decades of searching, she finally had a reasonably decent idea of who her birth father might be
When Helps used DNA Detectives to learn more about her ancestors, she got instant feedback and assistance. Part of the appeal might have been linking up with a community of likeminded people who understood what she was going through.
After she got tested by 23andMe.com, she found a match to a second cousin she'd never met. She also learned about the origins of her great-great-grandparents by worked backwards with a bit of research.
In 2015, after decades of searching, she finally had a reasonably decent idea of who her birth father might be. She knew some details about her father from social service agencies, such as his French-Canadian background, his prematurely grey hair, and blue eyes. She eventually found the public records of two brothers who fit that description. Both had passed away. But the dates they lived matched up with what she expected, so she contacted one of their family members to be DNA tested.
He agreed and now Helps is anxiously waiting for the results.
Not everybody wants to be found by a long-lost genetic relative
"I love history, I'm a buff, so it's fascinating to go back and find things about my family I otherwise wouldn't have known," she said.
Helps was raised by Ukrainian parents in Montreal, but ever since she was young, she loved all things Celtic. From dance to food to history, she was engrossed in Celtic culture, and she was never sure why. Since she built her family tree and learned more about her birth mother, she discovered she has some Irish roots.
That's the hook of online groups like DNA Detectives: They give people a chance to dig through their lineage in ways other generations couldn't dream of doing. There were no DNA test kits available for under $300 two decades ago. Curious adoptees had to pester social service agencies or sperm banks.
Of course, not everybody wants to be found by a long-lost genetic relative. On finding people who don't want to be found, one volunteer "search angel" named Heather MacPherson, who lives in Prince George B.C., told me: "These adoptees deserve the right to know where they came from. And if birth parents decide not to have a relationship with the people looking for them, that's OK, the children have to respect that."
Moore and her group admins are now being inundated with requests. There are too many asks to assist every plea one-on-one, but Moore wades through the posts, trains new search angels and gladly gives interviews to promote the Facebook group, her own business, and the TV show. She realizes how powerful a family connection can be to someone whose past is just a shadow.
Or, in Helps' case, whose family used to be a stranger staring back at her in the mirror.
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