Mail-in DNA test helps woman find Hilton Head family — and dad who didn’t know she existed

How a Hilton Head woman and a birthday gift helped a Missouri woman find her dad

Missouri resident Amy Meyeroff had a closed adoption and was hoping to find her biological father. An AncestryDNA gift helped her make the connection.
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Missouri resident Amy Meyeroff had a closed adoption and was hoping to find her biological father. An AncestryDNA gift helped her make the connection.

Amy Meyerott stood in the card aisle of a Target store in St. Louis last month, looking for the perfect Father’s Day card.

“Thank you for raising me the way you did,” one read.

That one wouldn’t do.

“Thank you for teaching me to ride a bicycle,” read another.

Neither would that one.

She decided to look in the stepfather card section.

“Blood means nothing.”

That one definitely didn’t apply.

But after an hour of searching, Amy, 32, found the perfect card to mail to her biological father, Tim Berrigan, who, until a few months before, did not know she existed.

The two were connected after Amy took an AncestryDNA test, which involves mailing in a saliva sample to find out one's ethnicity and, possibly, to be connected with relatives. According to the company's website, a person’s DNA is compared with 350 regions around the globe and potential relatives are identified based on similarities in DNA. Only those who have taken the same AncestryDNA test can be identified as potential relatives.

Amy’s test was a birthday present from her sister-in-law in September 2017. The gift-giver had been pushing her to take one as a way for Amy to finally find her biological father.

The test would take her to Hilton Head Island, where some of her family lives.

And it would lead her to the father she had never known.

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Amy Meyerott and her biological father, Tim Berrigan. Amy Meyerott Submitted
Her father’s name

Amy, who had a closed adoption, was in her early 20s when she found out who her biological mother was.

In closed adoptions, the adopting family typically does not know who the biological parents are. But in this situation, Amy's adoptive mother knew of her biological mother.

"I didn't realize that (my adoptive mother) knew," Amy said. "She had kind of given me hints over the years that I just didn't pick up on."

In her 20s, after she learned of her birth mother, Amy mailed a letter asking for her health history, a photo and her father’s name.

Her mother wrote back but granted only the first two requests.

She also asked Amy to respect her decision and to not contact her again.

Amy assumed her father did not want to be found.

When she took her DNA test in September 2017, she had a feeling she’d find her dad. But she also knew she'd likely not reach out to him.

When test results came back in late October, two things stood out.

She was overwhelmingly Irish — 67 percent.

And she had a close relative named Maureen Berrigan who lived on Hilton Head Island.

“When I looked at her profile, I knew she had to be on my dad’s side,” Amy said, “because I knew every last name affiliated with my mother’s side.”

Maureen’s last login was Sept. 4, Ancestry showed — the day before Amy’s birthday.

Amy, who was in the last few months of pregnancy before giving birth to a daughter in January 2018, got busy with other things and stopped checking

But Maureen logged back on.

From left to right: Madelyn Meyerott, Peyton Deason, Amy Meyerott, Myla Meyerott, Jackson Berrigan, Madeline Deason, Libby Berrigan and Graeme Berrigan. Amy Meyerott Submitted

A 'close relative’

Maureen, Tim’s sister, took an AncestryDNA test a few years ago.

In February 2018, she logged in and saw she had a new “close relative” named Amy Meyerott.

“We assumed she was just a child of one of my cousins,” said Maureen, a pediatrician who lives on the island. “The next day, I looked again and realized that my first cousin was down further (on the DNA similarities) than she was. So I thought maybe she’s closer than a cousin.”

That’s when the detective work started.

Maureen said Amy was hard to track down online — and she didn’t respond to Maureen’s Ancestry message. But eventually she found a blog Amy ran.

After scrolling through a few years’ worth of posts, Maureen saw one about Amy’s birthday. That gave Maureen a date. She did the math, then contacted her three brothers.

“Who were you dating in December 1984?” she asked them.

The family deduced that Tim — a radiologist who now lives in Kingsport, Tennessee — was the only logical connection the family had to Amy.

He had to be her father.

In addition to Amy, he had three other children and two stepchildren.

Tim found Amy’s social media accounts online.

He saw photos and a video of her, and noticed a startling resemblance to Amy’s biological mother — and himself.

Her rounded cheeks were her mother's.

But she moved her mouth like he did.

He recognized that shy but self-assured personality — that was her mother's, too.

Within five seconds, Tim was convinced.

Amy was his daughter.

“The possibility of a coincidence was completely shut down the moment I saw that," Tim said. "The match was so blatantly obvious, I couldn't deny it. I knew for sure she was mine."

Tim Berrigan and Amy Meyerott. Amy Meyerott Submitted
Father and daughter

On Sunday, March 4, 2018, Amy was lying on the couch, holding her newborn daughter, Myla, when she noticed a Facebook message request from a man named Tim Berrigan.

She recognized that last name, but she wasn’t sure from where.

She opened the message.

“Hello, sorry to contact you this way, but I don’t know how else to reach you,” it began. “Recently, my sister took a mail-in DNA test and you came up as a close relative. After a lot of research, we’ve come to the conclusion that a reason for that is because you are my biological daughter.”

Amy's husband and her adoptive mother were in the other room. She shouted for them and read them the message.

And she immediately answered it.

“Give me a few minutes to gather my thoughts and get my newborn taken care of, and then I’ll give you a call,” she wrote.

Twenty minutes later, Amy spoke to her father for the first time.

They talked on the phone for an hour.

Amy learned she had brothers and sisters.

She learned that her older daughter, Madelyn, who was 7, was just a month older than Tim’s youngest.

“I don’t think I could describe what was going through my head,” Amy said. “I did go through a roller coaster of emotions. I was very close to my adoptive dad, who passed away when I was 16. And so even just saying the word ‘dad’ again was a little strange for me."

But it was also thrilling.

A week later, Tim and his wife flew to St. Louis to meet Amy.

Amy got to Tim's hotel before their planned meeting time, and when she and her 7-year-old walked out of the lobby bathroom, they spotted him.

It was awkward, but not uncomfortable, they both remembered.

Tim gave Amy a side hug.

Amy introduced him to his granddaughter.

“Up until now, I’ve considered myself an old father because I had my kids later in life,” Tim said. “But now I feel like a young grandfather. It was a spontaneous shift of perspective.”

Although Tim would ultimately take a DNA test, it didn't seem necessary.

“It was pretty clear to her and it was pretty clear to me we were father and daughter,” he said. “There was a familiarity. It’s not something I can put into words.”

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Jenne Berrigan, Tim Berrigan, Amy Meyerott, and Amy's adoptive mother, Joan Barron. Amy Meyerott Submitted

'The right decision'

Amy’s biological mother and Tim were both raised on Hilton Head.

Although they went to separate colleges, they dated.

And, after a time, they parted when she suddenly broke up with him.

“At the time, I just thought the distance was difficult for her and she started dating somebody else and just decided not to tell me,” Tim said. “But I never had an explanation. Looking back, I guess she was pregnant and didn’t want to tell me that.”

Tim said he saw Amy’s mother only once after that, when the two were home from college for the summer.

They had mutual friends and ran into each other one day, Tim said.

Some friends had suggested to him she might be pregnant, and a small baby bump seemed to prove their point — but he wasn't sure.

He asked her to talk with him. He had to know before he left for Europe for a semester.

The two were out on one of the island's beaches when he asked her if she was pregnant.

If it was his child, he wanted to know, Tim told her.

She wasn't pregnant, she responded. Tim had nothing to worry about.

Amy supports the choices her mother made in not telling Tim the truth and in giving her up for adoption.

Even now, more than 30 years later, both Amy and Tim continue to support Amy's mother. Both honored her wish for anonymity by declining to disclose her name.

Amy said she wouldn't change anything about the childhood she had, being the only kid of two loving, adoptive parents. Her mom was her Girl Scouts leader, her grandparents lived next door, she rode horses and went on vacations.

“I’ve always had a wonderful family,” Amy said. “I had a picture perfect childhood growing up. I think my biological mother made the right decision at the time; it was probably for his (Tim’s) benefit.”

Amy Meyerott photographs a family dinner on Hilton Head Island. Amy Meyerott Submitted

Filling the shoes

Amy visited Hilton Head at the end of March to meet her grandparents, her Aunt Maureen and other relatives.

She had been to the island once before, after finding out her biological mother was from Hilton Head.

She and her husband joked that they would look for people who looked like Amy as a way to find her family.

But on this trip, she didn’t have to guess.

On Sunday, after church, Amy met her grandparents, Maureen and others at Reilley’s, an Irish pub.

She comes from an Irish family, after all.

They each had a Guinness, as the family often does after church, said Thomas Berrigan, Amy’s grandfather who lives in Sea Pines.

On Monday, Maureen had everyone over to her Hilton Head Plantation home for Lowcountry Boil.

Sitting under a string of tiny lights, Amy, a photographer, stepped away to capture the moment.

It felt like an episode of “Parenthood” she said, with everyone gathered around a long table for a family dinner.

When Amy took the DNA test eight months before, she wasn’t prepared for a relationship with her father, let alone one with an extended family.

She wasn’t prepared for a man that didn’t raise her to be called “grandpa” by her daughters.

She also wasn't prepared for this man she didn't really know to fill a father's shoes.

“It’s a huge blessing to have this whole family that is not only blood-related to me, but we also just get along really well,” Amy said. “Our family fits right in. It just makes sense. That’s really nice to have.”

Her newfound family agrees.

“We’re just blessed that we both happened to do it (the DNA test),” Maureen said. “I kind of wish that DNA testing was available 10 years ago, and we could have gotten to know her 10 years before.

“Tim said finding out she was his daughter was one of the happiest days of his life.”

Later this month, Amy plans to mail Tim his Father's Day card.

"It basically says every girl needs someone like him in their life," she said.

Alex Kincaid: 843-706-8123, @alexkincaid22