Heartwarming holiday: Rochester man celebrates Thanksgiving with newfound relative

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. – A Rochester family is celebrating this holiday week with a family member they didn’t know existed.

The dad took a 23andMe DNA testing kit several months ago and didn’t think much more of it until he got a message from a sister he never knew he had.

Tony Zapata is a father and grandfather who’s lived in Rochester most of his adult life. Last year, the former Rochester Police officer got COVID and spent six months in the hospital fighting for his life.

“I got critically sick and went to the ventilator and then ECMO, which is the highest form of life support you can be on. I lost 65 pounds, just atrophy, and so, I had to learn to walk again,” Zapata says.

He used all the strength he had to do that and get back to his family.

But the experience also got him thinking about a family he never knew.

Zapata was one of four children adopted into a loving family when he was just nine months old.

“I knew that my last name was Reid: R-E-I-D. I knew that my mother was 15 and I knew where I was born and I knew what orphanage I went into,” he says.

But he didn’t know much beyond that.

“In my heart deep down inside, I always wondered and I always wanted to see my mother,” he says.

He had done some record searches to no avail. His wife encouraged him to try a 23andMe home DNA testing kit. He swabbed and sent it in.

A few weeks later …

“July 25th, the day my grandson was born, it said, ‘You have a message from a J. Reid,'” he says. “So I opened it up and the message and it began, ‘I am trembling right now. I am your biological sister. We have a biological brother. I understand if this is a lot too much to process and you need some time.'”

Zapata was looking for his mother. He didn’t even think about possible siblings.

“I responded to her and I said, ‘Praise Jesus’ and then I said, ‘Of course I want to meet you.'”

On the other side of that message was Judi Reid. She was born three years after Zapata to the same mother and had been adopted, too.

A few years ago, she found that birth mother.

“It was an identity thing for me. I wanted to know who I was and I want my children to know who they were and where they came from,” Judi Reid says.

She was able to spend a weekend with her birth mom.

In meeting her, I found out I had two siblings. One is Zapata.

It turns out the two bothers were unknowingly on the same base and in the same company during basic training in Fort Jackson, S.C.

“We missed each other by a month but we connected 39 years later,” Zapata says.

They continue to get to know each other over the phone and through email, but Zapata and Reid decided it was finally time to connect in person.

“We thought, ‘You know, Thanksgiving, what a better time to meet and so last Tuesday she took a plane from Dallas,'” Zapata says.

And what a Thanksgiving they had: talking, sharing stories and meals, meeting family and extended family that neither knew they ever had.

“We are planning a family reunion now that we have Tony and so we’re really excited,” Reid says.

Their birth mother, unfortunately, passed away before Zapata could meet her, but now he at least has a picture of her and a connection with a family she created who were able to find one another.

“There’s still a lot more to go. This is just the beginning of the story I think,” Zapata says.