WILDWOOD – After 10 years of searching for her ancestry, Lisa Henry has found out about her family tree. Like any tree, it doesn't grow straight, instead branching out in all sorts of directions as she's discovered uncles, cousins, and family members dating back to the 1600s.
Along the way, she's learned about an uncle in Tennessee and a cousin in Texas, who she plans to meet for the first time this June. She's also learned about her father's family's background, and it doesn't come with a Hallmark-movie story.
"My father's mom put up a lot of her children for adoption," Henry said, "but we don't know any of the details. No one would ever talk about it. We've found a couple, but we are still missing three. We're hoping that maybe some publicity will help us find the others."
What Henry knows is that her paternal grandmother, Mildred Gibbs, lived in Camden and had eight children. She was married to Howard Young, Alphonse Sontonastasi, and Mike Gross.
Gibbs' mother worked at the Walt Whitman Chocolate factory and for Campbell Soup, where possibly the deals for others to raise her grandchildren were made.
"I found out when I was about 12 that I was taken in by a family," said Henry's newly-discovered uncle, David Young, of Tennessee. "I was actually what they called a foundling: someone opens their door and finds a baby in a basket on their doorstep.
"I guess that happened a lot back then," said the 69-year-old who specializes in behavioral sciences.
"I think I had always accepted my status, but now that we've discovered where I've come from, my tribe, I have a very satisfied feeling," he noted. "I don't have the high emotional feelings about all this like my children, and that may be because I'm from a different generation that was more stoic, more accepting of things without questions.
"Family trees are not a straight line, and now mine has a lot of branches with a lot of family members," he added.
In fact, Young's daughter, Heather, had traced the family's ancestry to the 1600s, when her ancestors left England and Scotland because of religious persecution to come to America.
She also traced a member of her family fighting in every one of the wars America has been a part of, including the American Revolution, Civil War and the War of 1812.
"Talk about immigrants," Heather Young said. "For me, this experience has been so fulfilling. We don't know the motives behind the adoptions, and I know we all want to have a Hallmark-TV-channel story (with a positive, sweet outcome). But that's not how life is; this is our story, and it's OUR story."
The first children born to Gibbs were twins, a boy, William, who was raised by her mother, and a girl who died at birth, according to Henry.
A second son, Patrick, was adopted and is deceased. Henry's father, Richard, lives in Washington State and prefers to be by himself with little or no contact with family members.
Young is next in line followed by two other boys who the cousins believe were adopted. The last child is believed to have been raised by his father and lost touch with the family.
They have not found three of the brothers, and Young has set up a Facebook page (Find My Uncles) and an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) in case anyone has information on the missing brothers:
* Gene Vincent (Todd) Sontonastasi - born 1950 - Camden - Philadelphia Naval Hospital.
* John Archer (Stephen) - born 1953 - West Jersey - Cooper Hospital.
* Michael Joseph Gross - born 1959-1960 - hospital unknown, possibly New Jersey.
"Mildred kept in touch with her son and granddaughter in Colorado, and when she died in 2015 at 95 years of age, they came across some papers with names and dates and some photos," Young said.
"There wasn't identification on some of the photos, but we knew they had to mean something because Mildred carried them around for 65 years."
"We knew there was a secret because no one ever talked about those children who were given away," Henry added. "It's been quite overwhelming."
Henry said she's spent about the last 10 years researching her ancestry and in 2010, decided to have her DNA tested through ancestry.com.
At that time, no results indicated other close relatives but did tell her that her ancestry was from Great Britain and Ireland.
"My mother always told us we also were part Native American," she noted, "and that didn't even show up."
Henry kept at her research, and this past September, a possible relative popped up on ancestry.com. "I emailed him (David Young) with the information that I had, and got an email back that said, 'I think I'm your uncle.'"
That started an exchange between Henry and Young, and Young's daughter, Heather. "Heather and I plan to meet when she comes up here in June," Henry said.
David met his older brother, William, a few weeks ago when William traveled from Colorado.
"He's a really nice man," Young said after meeting his brother.
"While he didn't have the benefit of growing up with his brothers, maybe now he'll be able to have a man-to-man relationship and be buddies," his daughter added.
"I'm just so excited to be meeting my cousin this June," she continued. "They say your first cousins are your first best friends. All of this happened because Lisa took a DNA test. I love the relationship that's already forming and can't wait to visit New Jersey."
To contact Karen Knight, email email@example.com.