“You are my brother,” read the email message Matt Heninger received on Jan. 3, 2016. After 53 years of wondering where he came from, Heninger said this message changed his life.
Heninger was born in Idaho Falls, Idaho, and adopted as a baby. He said he had tried in the past to find information about his birth family but after many unsuccessful attempts, he decided to end his search.
“It kept being a little frustrating, but I still had hope that one day I would meet my birth mom,” recalled Heninger, who lives in Gilbert, Arizona, with his family.
Heninger’s wife heard about a DNA test offered through Ancestry.com while working at the Gilbert Arizona Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After all the dead ends in his search, Heninger said he wasn’t thinking about finding his family when he took the test; he just wanted to find out his ethnicity.
“(AncestryDNA) is a genealogy testing service to help people discover a little bit more about their family story,” explained Anna Swayne, AncestryDNA expert with Ancestry.com.
Ancestry.com launched the AncestryDNA service in 2012. In 2015, the database included about 800 members, according to Swayne. That number almost doubled in one year, partially due to technology, she said.
“In so many ways (technology) has helped progress this work,” Swayne said. “Never before were we able to look at that data in one individual and then cross-compare it to 1.5 million people who also have the same markers.”
AncestryDNA uses microarray-based autosomal testing technology. Swayne noted there are several different types of DNA testing, but autosomal DNA is inherited from both parents.
“It’s a very powerful test because you can find connections on any one of your family lines,” Swayne said.
Swayne said the process starts when participants create a free Ancestry account and order the $99 DNA test kit, which the company mails within 8-10 business days. Once the kit is received, participants provide a saliva sample and send it back to the organization. It takes six to eight weeks for the DNA lab to process the sample. The sample is analyzed against 700,000 markers to analyze ethnicity and is compared against 26 specific population groups around the world. The DNA is then run against the 1.5 million people in the database. All results, including a list of cousin matches, are uploaded online to the user's Ancestry account, and participants receive an email when results are ready. Ancestry also offers a private messaging service for people to start a conversation.
“I thought that was a great thing,” Heninger said. “I actually know now where my biological ancestors originated from and I thought that was worth it. I thought that was the end of it. I had no idea what would happen next.”
It had been several months since Heninger had logged into his Ancestry account. When he checked it in December 2015, he had received a message from someone whose DNA matched as "close family/first cousins," according to Heninger's blog at azheninger.blogspot.com. That message was from Joyce Burgener from Spanish Fork, Utah.
Genealogy had always been a love of hers, Burgener said, and she enjoyed helping others find their relatives. Burgener had taken the AncestryDNA test four years ago and in August 2015, she received a message through Ancestry.com that she may have a possible first cousin match. She sent a message to Heninger and waited.
When Heninger saw her message, he sent an explanation that he did not know anything about his biological family. Burgener offered to help him.
“I was anxious and intrigued to not only help him find his family, but to know how he might be related to me,” Burgener recalled.
As they continued the correspondence and Heninger provided details of what little he did know about his birth, a memory came to Burgener's mind as she sought to understand what her connection to Heninger could be.
“I had no longer begun when a strong impression came upon me and a vivid memory came into view,” Burgener said. “I heard a voice say, ‘It was your mother.’ I immediately knew who Matt Heninger was — he was my brother.”
According to Heninger's blog, when Burgener was 12 years old, her mother had a child, Heninger, out of wedlock. The blog post states that Burgener was already one of five children and the family was living on welfare, so their mother felt the situation required that she place the baby for adoption. Because the adoption details had been kept private, both Heninger and Burgener knew very little about the situation until they connected through AncestryDNA.
Heninger remembered the tears and excitement that he shared with his wife when he saw the message from Burgener. He had always wanted to meet his birth family, and he was anxious to see what they looked like. Burgener told him there was a picture of their mom, who had died in 1992, on her family tree on Ancestry.com, and Heninger immediately looked at the family tree.
“It is hard to explain what it feels like, but when you are 53 and you’ve never known your birth mom and you finally see her for the first time, it is emotionally overwhelming,” Heninger said. “The best thing I looked forward to was meeting Joyce and giving her a hug. I feel my mom through her.”
Swayne noted that for someone who is adopted, the test is a very exciting possibility.
“Sometimes records are closed or there is a closed adoption, so DNA is our only hope to find connections,” Swayne said. “DNA provides this really great tool to help enrich people’s stories. Where records leave off, in some cases, DNA can pick up and can help extend your family tree.”
With the help of AncestryDNA, Heninger was able to meet his biological family for the first time.
“When someone is missing from your family, there is always that missing link, that blank spot,” Burgener said. “Having him in our lives now, we feel more peace, and it has given us another window of opportunity to extend our family and have someone else in our lives.”