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DNA kit links sisters after 50 years

It was early in the morning of July 5, and Sheryl Bizzell was waiting for her long-lost sister.

Ms. Bizzell, a Claremont resident, was in the main lobby of Ontario International Airport, holding up a sign that said, “long lost sisters.” Ms. Bizzell’s wife, Hilda Bizzell, was filming. Their son, Quentin, was helping out as well.

After what seemed like forever, a familiar-looking woman turned the corner, walked down the staircase and into Sheryl’s arms. She was Kelley Coyle-Fleer, Ms. Bizzell’s sister, who was given up for adoption when she was a baby.

“I peeked over, and I saw [Sheryl] there,” Ms. Coyle-Fleer said. “And I just took off down the stairs. I hugged her for the first time.”

After more than 50 years, they were finally reunited.

It all started with a DNA kit. Ms. Bizzell received one for Christmas from her sister-in-law, and thought it would be fun to try it out to look up family origins.

“That’s all I was looking for, just to see what it was,” Ms. Bizzell said.

On June 6, she received a curious message, letting her know that a woman living in Anchorage, Alaska was identified as a “close relation to first cousin.” Ms. Bizzell reached out to the woman, Ms. Coyle-Fleer, trying to figure out what was going on. Was she related to an uncle? An aunt?

Ms. Bizzell contacted her father, a Navy veteran who had been stationed in Vietnam when Ms. Coyle-Fleer was born, hoping for an answer.

“And he’s like, ‘Don’t be mad at your mom,’” Ms. Bizzell said.

Ms. Coyle-Fleer was Ms. Bizzell’s sister—she was born when Ms. Bizzell’s father was overseas, and her mother immediately gave her up for adoption. According to Ms. Coyle-Fleer, she was given away in a “gray market,” meaning the adoptive family would pay for a mother’s essential needs while pregnant in return for keeping the baby.

“My adopted parents paid for her rent, her doctor’s visits, her food,” she said. “They don’t pay for the baby, they help the mother out.”

The process was seamless—Ms. Coyle-Fleer’s adoptive mother’s identification was used to check into the hospital and sign the paperwork, leaving zero trace of any information about her biological family. It was something that had eaten at Ms. Coyle-Fleer for decades. She always knew she was adopted, and said she had been searching for much of her life for her biological family. There had been close calls. Ms. Coyle-Fleer’s older sister once told her of a chance meeting between the two families at a southern California shopping mall when she was a baby.

“She told me that I had two brothers and a sister and what hair color they had,” Ms. Coyle-Fleer remembers. “I knew they were out there.”

Eventually, her father got a job in Alaska and the family moved there in 1971, where Ms. Coyle-Fleer has remained ever since. But as she grew up, got married and started a family of her own, the possibility of finding her biological family was always with her.

“I’ve gone though all sorts of adoption websites, posting my information, my birthdate, different email addresses I’ve had, searching hospitals, just hoping that somebody was looking,” she said.

When she was about to give up, her husband, Dean Fleer, continued to sign her up for adoption websites to keep the search alive. Then, she sent in a DNA test of her own this past April. When it came back a few weeks later, she saw Ms. Bizzell’s name for the first time.

Ms. Bizzell was four years old when Ms. Coyle-Fleer was born, and never knew she had a long-lost sister. Her grandmother, who raised her and her two brothers, kept the secret from her.

“I think it was just mainly the way back then, that’s what they did,” Ms. Bizzell said. “My mom couldn’t handle three of us in the first place, and to have a fourth, it was more of, ‘This would be the best thing for her.’”

Her mother re-entered Ms. Bizzell’s life before she passed away. She vividly remembers her mother giving her clues to Ms. Coyle-Fleer’s existence. You need to find her, her mother said. Get your brothers and find her.

“My dad had a daughter previously to us, and I thought she was talking about her, so I thought it was kind of odd,” Ms. Bizzell said. “I didn’t realize totally what that was, or I would have been searching.”

Once Ms. Coyle-Fleer touched down in California, the two were inseparable. They went to Huntington Beach for a family reunion, where Ms. Coyle-Fleer met her new brother, Shawn Henderson, who had come to California from his home in Pennsylvania to see his new sister.

They also had some sisterly teasing to catch up on as well, which manifested during a trip to Knott’s Berry Farm this past week.

“I had to pull her hair,” Ms. Bizzell said with a laugh.

Both Ms. Bizzell and Ms. Coyle-Fleer bear a resemblance to each other, in both looks and personality.

“They have a lot of similarities to each other,” Hilda Bizzell, Ms. Bizzell’s wife, said. “Same humor, same laugh—it’s very strange.”

This notion was not lost on Ms. Coyle-Fleer.

“We use the same vernacular. There’s been a few times when we say the exact same things at the same time,” she said. “There’s definitely a connection there.”

But what struck the sisters the most was Ms. Coyle-Fleer’s resemblance to her mother. Ms. Bizzell took a photo of her sister looking at her phone, which almost identically lined up to a photo of their mother taken in the 1970s. 

“It made me cry,” Ms. Coyle-Fleer said, her eyes welling up with tears. “We look alike.”

“They don’t look alike,” Ms. Bizzell said. “They’re identical.”

The sisters have plans to stay in touch—Ms. Bizzell and her family are planning to come up to Anchorage to met Ms. Coyle-Fleer’s family in the near future.

But for Ms. Coyle-Fleer, years of searching and uncertainty have finally reached a happy conclusion—she finally found her biological family.

“It’s like a dream,” she said. “It’s like a new door opening to a new adventure, one door closes and that’s my search. My search is over, and now it’s the relationship building.”

—Matthew Bramlett

news@claremont-courier.com