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DNA testing

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Jennilyne Hamm, lower left, and her twin sister Karla have been getting to know their newfound half-siblings through Zoom. Photo from Jennilyne Hamm

This holiday season, many will have more family members to celebrate with thanks to popular DNA tests that not only break down a person’s ethnic background but also connect them to people with similar DNA.

Jennilyne Hamm and her twin sister Karla. Photo from Jennilyne Hamm

The tests that estimate how two people may be related to each other can sometimes provide some surprising results. This was the case for Smithtown resident Jennilyne Hamm, who was inspired to take a test through 23andMe after her daughter Isabella had done so. She said her daughter was curious about her ethnic background, and her results turned up some relatives that they didn’t know about.

One of those relatives, John,  asked questions to see how they were related, Hamm said. They couldn’t figure out the connection, so they chalked it up to them being distant relatives.

Hamm, who just turned 50, said when her husband, Erik, didn’t use a test she bought him, she decided to use it herself. She and her twin sister, Karla, grew up in Whitestone with their parents, sister and four older half-siblings from her mother’s first marriage, and she said the tight-knit family never suspected any other close relations.

On Aug. 4, a month after sending in her test, Hamm said she read her results and was surprised to see she had three half-siblings she didn’t know existed: John, Irene and Elaine. At first, she thought it was a fluke.

She said the younger of her new half-siblings, Irene, was curious and the two of them were texting one day when Hamm was out on the Long Island Sound on her boat. She said she started to realize her mother may have had an affair. Looking at her ethnic background she noticed she was all Italian instead of mixed with Scottish and German heritage as she thought. She gave her twin sister her login information so she could look over the results. It was then when a message from Elaine, one of the newfound half-siblings, wrote back, “We’ve known about our baby twin sisters. We’ve been waiting for you.”

Jennilyne Hamm discovered recently that her biological father, above, was John Joseph Schiavo Sr. and not the man who brought her and her twin sister up. Photo from Jennilyne Hamm

“It’s turned out to be such a wonderful experience,” Hamm said. “Nothing that we ever asked for or looked for or even knew about.”

While Hamm’s parents and older relatives are deceased, the new family members have been able to piece together part of the story. Elaine said she and John found out from two uncles after their father passed away that there were a set of from an extramarital affair. Hamm said she discovered that while the father who raised her, Ed, and her mother wanted to have their own children, they had trouble conceiving. Her mother and biological father, John, had an affair, even though no one knows how they met. When her mother got pregnant, she told John she wanted to raise her child with her husband. Hamm said at the time her mother didn’t know she was pregnant with twins.

“John gracefully bowed out and accepted that, and then later found out through the grapevine that it was twins, and he respected my mother’s wishes,” Hamm said. “Of course, that little girl inside of you still wished that she knew.”

Hamm and her twin sister now know that their biological father was married to a woman named Alice, and they had John and Elaine. After the affair with her mother, Hamm said father John then married a woman named Shelley and had Irene.

A 23andMe representative said the company is hearing of more stories like Hamm’s.

“With genetic testing readily available to consumers, we are increasingly hearing stories of families discovering and reuniting with newfound relatives, and of customers finding unexpected results in their reports,” the spokesperson said.

Jennilyne Hamm, right, was inspired to take a DNA test after her daughter Isabella did and found relatives they did not know about. Photo from Jennilyne Hamm

According to the company, the kits are not designed “to help people confirm parentage or find biological parents.” However, the DNA relatives tool, which is optional for customers, provides an opportunity for users to find and connect with participating genetic relatives. The company also lists a disclaimer that the tool may lead to finding unexpected relatives.

Hamm said the siblings meet on Zoom and talk and text regularly. With Elaine in Texas, John in Florida and Irene in Colorado, the pandemic has made it impossible for Hamm and her sister to meet them in person. However, the hope is that in the future the twins can travel to Florida where Irene’s mother Shelley lives near John, and they all can meet there.

Hamm said she loves sharing the story with everybody.

“It’s funny how God works or the world or whatever you believe in,” she said. “That emptiness I used to feel is finally gone.”