SPECIAL FEATURE: DNA kit connects woman with father she never knew

On Jan. 31, 2019, Jaime Lee Baleno’s life changed forever.

“I’ll never forget it,” she said. “I found out who my father was.”

Jaime Lee grew up without her dad. Her mother said she didn’t know who he was, so Jaime Lee had given up hope on finding him — until she got a 23andMe DNA testing kit for Christmas last year from her husband. The kit connected her with a half brother, who ultimately connected her with her father, who is alive and well and living in Puerto Rico.

“I was on the ground when I found out my father was alive and well. I was in tears,” she said. “Now we’re together after 38 years.”

Child left behind

Jaime Lee had a hard life without her father. Her childhood is the stuff of nightmares — abandonment and abuse at the hands of those who were supposed to keep her safe.

Jaime Lee was born in Trenton, New Jersey, in 1980. Her mother was just 19 at the time and, as Jaime Lee put it, she “had a past.”

“She was in some financial struggle and she did what she had to do to make money,” Jaime Lee said.

As such, she could never tell Jaime Lee who her father was.

“She said, ‘The only thing I can tell you is that you look just like him, because I can remember his face,’” she recalled. “But I still had no name. I didn’t know anything.”

And if Jaime Lee knew little about her father, her father knew nothing about her — he never knew her mother had even been pregnant.

“He didn’t know about me,” she said. “He couldn’t help me.”

Her mother moved them to Syracuse and married a Filipino migrant worker, who physically and sexually abused Jaime Lee until she was 3, when he died. Then Jaime Lee’s mother took her and her half-sister, her husband’s child, to Guam, where his relatives were for his funeral.

“[He had beaten me] to the point where CPS almost took me away from my mother [in Guam],” Jaime Lee said. “He had beat my face in, into a coffee table. When my mother found out someone had told CPS, she immediately called, got a plane ticket and took me back to Syracuse.”

But her mother didn’t stay with Jaime Lee — she returned to Guam, leaving Jaime Lee with a sister. Jaime Lee’s aunt couldn’t care for her and put her into foster care. In her first home, the least horrifying act of abuse she endured was being thrown into a Christmas tree; her alcoholic foster mother would leave her outside of bars, hold meat cleavers to her neck, force her to eat her own vomit and more. Jaime Lee finally told someone about the abuse when she was 8 and was moved to a new foster home. However, it was not a step up.

“[She] basically beat me in the guise of religion,” Jaime Lee said. “Told me I was a sinner all the time, I was going to hell.”

Surviving the trauma

Jaime Lee lived in the house until she was 15, being “treated like a slave” while other kids in the home lived a relatively normal life. She started hanging out with a rough crowd, smoking and sneaking out — but she never turned to drugs or alcohol.

“Thank God, I never got into drugs,” Jaime Lee said. “I wasn’t an alcoholic. I saw other people doing it and I was like, ‘It’s not for me.’”

Instead, she turned to the only being in the foster home who offered her any affection.

“[The woman] had a lab and his name was Bear,” Jaime Lee said. “Every night he would come into my room and he would lay with me. And he was the only one I had to put my arms around. He was the only one I had to put my head on and cry.”

She also relied on music as an escape.

“Music was a big part of my life,” Jaime Lee said. “I always loved Latin music. I always loved classical music. I always loved opera. My goal was to be an opera singer.”

But it’s hard to meet your goals when day-to-day survival is a struggle. Jaime Lee ran away from her foster home at 15. Her mother sent her a plane ticket to Guam, but that didn’t work out, either; Jaime Lee stayed for two years before her mother left her again, and Jaime Lee was on her own.

Finding Dad

Despite her troubled past, Jaime Lee turned out okay. She made her way back to Central New York. She took her love for dogs — like Bear, her only companion in foster care — and built her own business; she owns and operates Pet Style Pet Grooming in Solvay with her husband, Jim. But she always felt her father’s absence. When she got the 23andMe kit, she jumped at the chance to find him — though she did have some doubts.

“I thought he was dead, because I’m already almost 40,” Jaime Lee said.

To do the 23andMe DNA test—as well as many other brands that follow the same model — you collect saliva in a tube marked with a bar code you register with the company’s website, then mail it in using a prepaid envelope provided with the kit. The company will complete a process called autosomal DNA testing and provide you with results online within three to five weeks. Depending on the company and the package your purchase, you can learn about your ancestral origins and your genetic risks for certain health conditions. You can choose to register your DNA profile with the website so others with a similar genetic profile — relatives — can connect with you. You can also opt out of that provision.

Since Jaime Lee was doing the test in hopes of connecting with her family, she opted to share her profile. Fortunately, so had six close family connections, including a half-brother named Andrew. She sent him a message immediately. He called the same night — Jan. 31 — and told her their father was 60 and living in Puerto Rico. Not only was her father alive and well, but she had four other half-siblings. Andrew gave her the number for a half-sister, Melissa, who gave Jaime Lee their father’s number. Within days, Jaime Lee was talking to the man who gave her life for the first time. A month later, she was on a plane to meet him.

“I spent 11 days with him and had the best time of my life,” she said. “We’ve already seen the similarities. We have a lot of the same things, hands, feet, face. We look very much alike.”

Jaime Lee said her father is consumed with guilt that she grew up the way she did.

“He just feels very sad because he never knew, and he knows what I went through and he feels that he could have helped,” she said. “But I don’t hold any grudges against my father because it was not his fault. He did not know. He shouldn’t be held responsible at all because no one informed him that he had a child.”

A new family

Not only does Jaime Lee now have her father in her life, she has an entire family. In addition to her four half-siblings — whom she plans to meet in person soon — she said she has more than 1,000 relatives she found through the 23andMe site, 100 of whom are in the Syracuse area.

“I met my aunts already,” Jaime Lee said. “When they met me, they threw me a little mini fiesta and cooked. And we had all of my cousins come over.”

She said based on her experience, anyone thinking about doing an autosomal DNA test should not hesitate.

“Never give up hope,” she said. “Do not look for them to get something like money or something physical, but look for them to fill your soul. To connect something that’s been missing.”

Jaime Lee warned that it will change your life.

“When my family found out about me, they all wanted to meet me,” she said. “I started getting Facebook friend requests like crazy, people sending me messages — ‘We’re so happy you’re a part of our family.’”

Jaime Lee said she never got that feeling of belonging from her mother’s side of the family.

“It’s not even worth talking about,” she said. “If someone treats you a certain way, turn the cheek and just walk away. They aren’t worth anything in your life.”

Now she’s found a new family that has redefined the word for her.

“It’s just wonderful to have my dad in my life and hear my father say that he loves me and my daddy telling me everyday how beautiful I am,” she said. “I feel whole.”