After 52 years, New Freedom woman finds biological siblings, more through genetic testing

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch

Glenn Leonard never had the luxury of growing up playing with her siblings. Not because they weren't close, but because she didn't know she had them until she was 52 years old.

Leonard, of New Freedom, was adopted at 3 months old and didn't meet her biological mother and grandmother until she was in her mid-20s.

Although she was thankful to meet her mother and understood that the woman believed she couldn't provide for Leonard as a baby, she left out some important details: Leonard has five siblings living in Virginia.

"It was hard to swallow, and I'm still dealing with that," Leonard said.

23andMe: Leonard, now 53, is a paramedic firefighter in Baltimore who is married and has one daughter. She received a DNA kit from the genetic testing company 23andMe for Mother's Day.

Glenn Leonard, 53, looks through photos given to her by her newfound biological siblings while she talks about the connections made through DNA testing with 23andMe, at her home in New Freedom, Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The California-based personal genomics and biotechnology company provides genetic testing and analysis using a saliva sample that the user mails to the company.

At first, Leonard was more interested in being tested for the BRCA gene, which gauges the risk of breast and ovarian cancer, as her biological grandmother died of breast cancer.

She was cleared of any genetic mutation of the gene that would've put her at an increased risk of breast cancer. But she also found much more than she expected: More than 900 relatives.

Connection: To her surprise, the ancestry results showed the long list of family. Leonard noticed a woman with the same maiden name as her biological father — a man she had never met and knew very little about.

Leonard said she had looked for her father years ago but had no luck.

The woman turned out to be her cousin, and after reaching out via Facebook, the two excitedly spoke about the family that was completely new to Leonard. 

Before she knew it, her cousin connected Leonard with her biological sister via phone.

"It was amazing; it wasn't awkward at all," Leonard said. "It was like we had known each other, and it was very comfortable."

Just two weeks later, on her birthday, Leonard went to Virginia to meet the siblings she never knew she had, calling the experience "overwhelming." 

Glenn Leonard, of New Freedom Borough, was united with her biological siblings she never knew she had on her birthday this year.

She wasn't the only one who felt that way.

"They were just overwhelmed as well," Leonard said. "We sat around, ate pizza and drank beer. It wasn't like it was the first time we ever met."

Although she was initially only able to meet her sister and three of her brothers because her fourth brother is ill, the group went to complete the family gathering and visited him later.

Since then, she said, Leonard and her newfound family have been keeping updated through calls and texts while living their own lives in different states.

But another reunion should be coming soon, she added.

"Everybody's been very accepting," she said. "We are just getting to know each other more."

New questions: The experience of uniting with a family that previously never held a place in her memory not only helped her answer life questions but also prompted new questions about what would have happened if life for the family had followed a different path.

"We talked about 'what if' kind of things," she said. "It's been wonderful to find and to be accepted and embraced as family. Even through we're still kind of strangers, there's a bond there that you can't explain."

Glenn Leonard, 53, talks about connecting with biological relatives through DNA testing with 23andMe, at her home in New Freedom, Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Leonard added that learning about her father and the similarities that she has with him was "so gratifying, and they opened a window and let some sun in."

"If you're not adopted, it's hard to understand that you do wonder where you came from or who you look like," she said. "I grew up without hearing any of that because I grew up with my adoptive family."

Leonard said her adoptive family was loving and treated her well, but knowing more about her biological family showed her how deep genetics go.

"I found out that I do look like somebody, and I do come from somewhere," she said. "I didn't realize how much I missed having a big family."

Leonard concluded that she would recommend that anyone take such DNA tests, as her experience couldn't have been more gratifying.

"You never know — you might have a great big family out there waiting for you," she said.