Anita Sims was browsing CVS one day when she saw a great sale on 23andMe DNA testing kits.
Perfect, she thought, for her beau Jon Gacek, who was adopted and had little background as to ancestry or possibly any inherited diseases.
“It was practically two test kits for the price of one, and I knew he wouldn’t do it alone, so I bought them and we did the tests together,” she said.
23andMe, based in California, is named for the 23 pairs of chromosomes found in a normal human cell.
Sims was pretty sure she’d have no surprises; she proudly claimed her Mexican-American roots on her mother’s side, and on her father’s side, Pascua Yaqui.
But there was more than one surprise in her test results, which arrived in the mail six weeks after she submitted a saliva sample in the test vial.
“We were so excited when the results came in the mail. We waited and opened them when we were together,” said Sims, 22 and the oldest of nine children.
“We learned that John, who was adopted from South Korea, was mostly Korean but had some Chinese and Japanese, but that wasn’t much of a surprise. However, the health feature showed he was lactose intolerant, which made sense because he’d always had issues with dairy products.”
Checking her own ancestry brought Sims some surprises she hadn’t anticipated.
“I learned a lot about myself, surprisingly. Of course, it came back half Native American from my dad’s side. But the shocking part was the other half was European, Spanish mostly, to be exact,” she said. “I realized that I was Spanish on my mom’s side and not Mexican like I’d always thought. It made sense though because her side of the family is very light-complected and even some of them have hazel eyes.”
Though it sounded simple enough, the test result caused Sims some consternation.
“Learning I was Spanish as opposed to Mexican, well that to me was the hardest part. I mean I grew up raised by a single mom who came to this country at the age of 9, and I prided myself in being Mexican and loving my culture and whatnot. The graph chart showed I had 48 percent European ancestry, and it broke it down for you. Mine was mostly Spanish.”
The test results arrived two years ago, so Sims said she’s “well past that now.”
And then there was the DNA Relative Finder option, one Sims decided to pursue after some consideration.
“The cool thing about 23andme is that if you have a close DNA relative match with someone, you have the option to direct message them and share your DNA info. And this is how I discovered my dad’s half-sister, my Aunt Cathy. That was the most mind-blowing, most amazing thing ever.”
Aunt Cathy is Cathy Ziehl, who lives in California, not far from Valencia where Sims lived before moving to Ahwatukee last spring when Gacek got a new position with CBS in Phoenix.
Actually, she says, it was Ziehl who touched base with her via the 22andMe message app, noting they had a 17 percent match.
There began a discovery that went back to Japan.
Ziehl and Sims noted both had high percentages of Native American and East Asia genetic DNA results. The two women started talking about possible connections and eventually stumbled on an Okinawa, Japan on the paternal side.
“We began piecing it together. I texted my dad who told Sims he’d overheard a conversation with his father and older sister that said his grandfather’s mother knew that during his time in Japan, he had fathered a daughter.
“He’d told them he wanted to go back and find her but he never had the time or money to do that,” explained Sims.
“Cathy and I knew my grandfather had spent time in the military in Okinowa, and my dad mentioned a name he’d heard — Sachie. She messaged me back that it was a common shortening of the name Sachico Sawada. My dad said, if it’s the daughter, she’d have to be at least 50 years old, so I asked Cathy how old she was. She said, 50.”
Since that connection, the newly-discovered aunt and niece have found time to meet several times.
“It’s really such a surprise to us both to have found each other and discovered this past we never really knew,” said Sims.
These kinds of stories are what make 23andMe employees proud to be a part of the company, said spokesman Scott Hadley.
“We see these kinds of close relatives connections often, but for me and those working her, Anita’s story and others like hers make the hair stand up on the back of your neck,” he admitted. “It’s hard to imagine how these people would ever have found each other, and for me, that never gets old.”
Sims said selecting the 23andMe kits wasn’t as random as it sounds.
“I’d actually done a little bit of research before deciding on doing 23andme over other DNA tests such as Ancestry. What I liked about 23andme was that they used your DNA for actual scientific research as opposed to Ancestry.com where they’re selling DNA for profit to use as marketing research,” she said, adding:
“23andme works with nonprofits and different universities to develop new gene therapy techniques for diseases such as Parkinson’s etc. Also I chose 23andme because I have the right to my DNA and can ask it to be pulled out of any research as opposed to others where they’d own my DNA. When you take any DNA test though, you always take the risk of learning things you might have not wanted to learn. Thankfully, I learned some amazing things.”
The company 23andMe was started in 2016, with the website launched a year later. Hadley said the company was one of the pioneers in the field.
“We’ve been doing this a long time, and a lot of the products we innovated we now see mimicked by other companies. We’re proud of what we do and the science behind it. And I believe it’s that science, and our experience, that sets us apart from the rest,” said Hadley, who’s been with 23andMe for seven years.
He said the 23andMe services offered were and are mainly sold online, but as of the upcoming holiday season, kits like the one Sims picked up in CVS will be more available in retail stores including Target and Walgreens, among others.
“We get a lot of interest around the holidays, definitely,” said Hadley. “The kits are often given as gifts to family members.”
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