Kylene Simpson, formerly of Lenox and now of Waukee, was only 14 months old when her parents Barb and Merle Swank of Lenox adopted her from Children’s Home Society of Minnesota nearly 40 years ago.
Despite what she describes as a happy upbringing, she became curious about where she came from, particularly after her mother’s health began to deteriorate a few years ago.
“It made me think, ‘I don’t know anything about my history, my health history, anything about anything,’” said Simpson.
Simpson, who is married to Cody Simpson, formerly of Creston, said, until now, her only known blood relatives were the couple’s four sons – Hunter, Dylan, Ashton and Kade. She started to crave to know more.
“I decided I was going to try to take a 23andMe test,” she said.
Simpson purchased a 23andMe test while it was on sale during Black Friday in 2017. Four weeks after buying it, the results displayed an array of distant cousins, but not a match close enough to truly assist in her search for her birth family.
Cheyenne Phillips, 23, of Lombard, Illinois, became curious about her heritage after her uncle, Sean Semler, shared at Thanksgiving dinner that he had taken a 23andMe ancestry test, and it sparked her interest in learning more about her family origin.
“Her mom passed away when she was young, so I guess she just wanted to see what she was made of ... Cheyenne was four,” said her father, Mike Semler.
For Phillips, there was a lot to learn about her family with the loss of her mother and the fact her father was an adoptee. For Christmas of the same year, she received and took a 23andMe test.
“It was as if it happened all by accident, because he (her father) had no interest in it,” said Simpson.
Semler was supportive in helping his daughter find out more about her heritage, but had no interest himself – until his daughter’s results returned a match.
When Phillips received her 23andMe results and discovered she had a match of a possible aunt, she sent Simpson a message through the 23andMe website. Eager for a response, she then sent Simpson a message on Facebook.
“She was like, ‘Hey, I don’t know if you noticed, but, I’m either your first cousin or your niece, I’m not sure which,’” said Simpson.
Simpson asked Phillips if she or her parents were adopted. Phillips explained that she wasn’t adopted, but that her father was adopted from Korea – just like Simpson. So then, Simpson reached out to Semler.
Simpson and Semler connected and Semler took the test shortly after. The result: half siblings.
“We then talked to a Korean DNA specialist and figured out we have the same mom and different dads,” Semler said.
Semler, 44, of Winamac, Indiana, was two years old when his parents – Dawn and Philip Semler – adopted him.
At the time, his father was stationed at Osan Air Base near Songtan Station in the city of Pyeongtaek, South Korea. His soon-to-be mother, sisters, Sandy and Corinne, and brother Sean, were living in a nearby village since they were not permitted to reside on the all-male military base.
“Outside of a base like that, there were a lot of kids who were half Korean, half American, and I think my mom thought she would end up with one of those kids,” said Sandy Hazemi. “But she wasn’t going to an orphanage to pick up a child. She said that would be too difficult.”
Hazemi recalled her father pointing out an attorney’s office in the village, where his wife could inquire about adopting a child.
“She spoke to the gentleman and said, ‘We have the means to adopt another child and there seems to be a need,’” said Hazemi.
Hazemi said the attorney told the family he would have a child ready for them 10 a.m. the next day.
“So we went back the next morning at 10 o’clock and they handed Michael to me,” said Hazemi, who was 15 years old at the time.
Hazemi remembered thinking Semler had head lice, but the white specks in his hair was sugar from the donut given to him during the car ride to meet his new family.
“We took Michael and we knew nothing about him. They just let us leave with him,” she recalled.
The family then took him into the village to buy toys and some necessities to care for him. Hazemi recalled Michael as being very smart for being only two.
“When we came to a street, he’d put his hand out to stop you,” she said.
The family returned to their home and played for the rest of the day. Hazemi remembered her father’s reaction when he walked into the house that evening.
“My dad comes home and said, ‘What is this? Well, you you can’t keep him. Who let’s you leave with a child?’ So, we had to take him back,” she said.
But, after a family discussion, it was decided to bring Semler home.
Barb Swank, Kylene’s adoptive mother, said her and her husband’s adoption journey began after realizing they could not have children of their own. Longing for a family, she consulted with her friend Sandy Bolinger of Creston, who helped guide the family into the adoption process.
The Swanks adopted Kylene, Kendra and Kirk, all of which Barb described as happy and healthy, with the exception of Kylene, who suffered from malnutrition, which she said was quickly resolved under their care and the advisement of a doctor.
Simpson said her parents were always open with her about her roots.
“She’s been supportive and she’s really excited,” Simpson said.
Aside from health history, Simpson said she wanted to know how Korean she is, since her parents were told at adoption that their daughter was half Caucasian.
“The results said I was 96% Korean,” she said.
Semler and his wife Denisa, and their children Cheyenne, Zack and Matthew, hosted the Simpsons for a visit Easter weekend 2019, where Simpson and Semler met in person for the very first time. Semler’s parents and siblings attended, too.
“It was really cool,” said Simpson. “We’re not really huggers, so that’s something we both found out about right away. It’s hard to explain, but we instantly connected. We think of the same things. It’s hard to explain ... the feeling.”
Simpson said she didn’t feel overwhelmed. The feeling, she described, was of being familiar.
Cheyenne said she could see the resemblances right away.
“It was cool. I like meeting my extended family,” she said. “It’s nice to see some familiar faces.”
Cheyenne said Simpson’s son Hunter looks exactly like her brother Zack, as they have similar features and facial expressions.
Semler said the experience was interesting.
“It piqued my curiosity,” he said.
Connecting with Semler has been a bit of a treasure for Simpson in more ways than one. Unlike Simpson, Semler came with documents, which identified their mother, her parents, and other relatives dating back to the 1800s.
“She needed a lot more information and I figured I could help,” he said.
For the family, it’s an experience they’ll never forget.
“It was a big gathering. They were all so amazing and open to calling us family,” said Simpson. “It was just nice.”
Simpson compared the experience to searching for the unexpected. She said she felt fortunate about her luck and the outcome.
“I’ve had friends who have had great experiences, where they have been welcomed into their family; and I’ve known people who have reached out to their birth mom who emailed back and said, ‘No. I’m married now. I have kids, but my husband doesn’t know you exist and I can’t have anything to do with you.”
Since their first meeting in Indiana, the Semlers have visited and met Simpson’s family in Lenox over Memorial Day weekend. Now that they have found each other, the siblings are excited to catch up and create memories together.
“We connected right away. We talk every day – several times a day. We did that from the beginning ... we had a connection, I guess,” Simpson said.