Toni DiPina, 55, does not know her real name.
As an infant, she was found abandoned in a vacant lot in St. Louis. When she was picked up, according to the St. Louis Dispatch, she did not cry. Her birthday was assigned to her based on her size.
And although she posted on social media and was even a subject of an investigation, DiPina was never able to find her birth family.
DiPina was in and out of the foster system until she was 18, living with some very questionable families. She told the Dispatch that those years in the system were very lonely and scarring. The first woman she ever lived with fostered children for a living, hosting 24 kids over a period of 34 years.
After she went blind, DiPina's foster mother became a recluse, never leaving the house. DiPina recalled that while living there, one of her foster siblings even died of malnourishment. However, her faith and studies kept her afloat.
In the next foster home, DiPina suffered both physical and sexual abuse for numerous months. Although she was pulled from that home after five months, she was tossed around the system, in and out of various homes until she aged out.
Luckily, her life turned around after she was accepted for a nannying position in Boston. There, she received a college education, a career, and a family of her own. She became a pastor.
And although DiPina had given up the idea of ever finding her family, a professor from seminary encouraged her to use a DNA kit to find her family. Intrigued, albeit reluctant, DiPina ordered the test.
Much to her surprise, she connected with her 23-year-old second cousin Ryne Awkard. However, wanting to find a relative with a closer connection, DiPina asked Ryne to have his mother take the DNA test as well.
Although cautious at first, Rosetta Awkard consented to take the test. She told The Dispatch:
“I just didn’t know what it would open. I was thinking, ‘Who is this person?’ I told her, ‘I don’t have any money. I don’t know what you want from me.’”
However, once she got to know DiPina better, she was excited to learn that the woman was her first cousin. The two women arranged to meet in St. Louis. Their reunion was something out of a movie, with the cousins running to meet, ending in an embrace. Awkard told DiPina:
“I’m in awe because you really look like my mom. You have her eyes.”
There was no doubt that they were family.
— St. Louis Post-Dispatch (@stltoday) March 5, 2018
“We’re three years apart and I know that if we had known each other when we were kids, we would have been friends. So there’s a lot of emotions. I’m elated but I’ve also had to mourn all the times we could have had.”
Awkard is now on a quest to help her cousin find her birth parents, slowly convincing family members to each take their own DNA test. She is harboring anger, as she has come to the conclusion that one of her own aunts and uncles were responsible for DiPina's estranged upbringing. She said:
“I keep thinking that if my mom had known there is no way this would have happened. We would have taken her in, no question. She didn’t have to go through any of that. And to know that someone in my own family did this — I have a lot of anger.”
DiPina, on the other hand is not angry at her birth parents. All she wants is to understand the story behind their decisions. Relieved that she now has some sense of her origin, DiPina said:
“...I got to meet my first cousin … my family. If that’s what God allows for me that’s enough.”
She added: "Meeting her, it was like coming home.”