Good Life

Advocate helps adoptees learn about their history

Priscilla Sharp at her home in College Township on Thursday, July 9, 2015. Sharp is an advocate for adoptee rights and helps reunite relatives separated by adoption.
Priscilla Sharp at her home in College Township on Thursday, July 9, 2015. Sharp is an advocate for adoptee rights and helps reunite relatives separated by adoption. CDT photo

A little more than 50 years ago, Priscilla Stone Sharp was pregnant and unwed. When her first born daughter arrived in 1964, one of those things remained glaringly unchanged.

Sharp said that at the time, many of the women in her situation were sent away to maternity wards and encouraged to give their children up for adoption.

“A lot of these adoptions back in the ’60s and ’70s , the fathers weren’t even aware they had a child,” Sharp said.

Life, as it tends to do, went on. Sharp married, gave birth to another little girl and even attended her granddaughter’s wedding — but never forgot the baby she had given up.

When her daughter and grandaughter left the house, the State College resident was in need of a new hobby and began to tentatively explore geneaology.

She sharpened her skills as a researcher by climbing the branches of her own family tree, tracing distant relatives and ancestors, piecing together her lineage to help pass the time.

A friend who worked with adoptees introduced Sharp to people whose past was obscured by much denser foliage, which she has become very adept at cutting through.

Sharp estimates that she has executed almost 1,000 solved searches, successful traces made between adoptees and their biological families.

Before her son developed problems with his liver, Carol Rockey of State College had not yet begun to actively delve into the details of her adoption. Her frustration at not being able to provide basic information about her own medical history placed a renewed importance on the past and raised troubling questions about the future.

“It scared the living daylights out of me as a mother,” Rockey said.

After a few failed attempts to obtain her medical information, Rockey turned to Sharp for help, duly warned that the process could yield unexpected or even unwelcome results.

“You have to be emotionally ready to search,” Rockey said.

She was initally skeptical that Sharp’s research would lead anywhere worth going - and was surprised when the geneaologist called her a few months later and asked if she was sitting down.

Sharp had traced Rockey’s mother to a nearby nursing home, where shortly following a brief phone conversation, they reunited.

“It was the most surreal experience ever,” Rockey said.

Even a happy ending isn’t necessarily a simple one — and that’s not what Sharp is offering.

“She can’t promise you a Lifetime movie ending because that’s not what this is about,” Rockey said.

Often times Sharp is trying to pull answers from fragments of a question, working with scraps of biographical information like the name of a birth hospital or a parent’s hometown.

She scours newspaper archives, public directories and even old yearbooks, tracing one clue back to another.

“This is absolutely tedious and painstaking,” Sharp said.

Online DNA testing services like AncestryDNA and 23andMe have helped to narrow the search parameters.

Working from a sample of saliva, AncestryDNA can break down a person’s heritage and make connections within the service’s database between other members of the same family line.

Even if a direct parental connection doesn’t take place, adoptees can potentially discover siblings, second cousins or other relatives that can point them in the right direction.

Some searches take longer than others.

One of Sharp’s clients, who is trying to keep his search low-key and wished to remain anonymous, has been working with her for more than three years.

His investigation began with an elementary school project, an ancestry report that his kids were assigned. The questions that followed about his half of the family line piqued his interest.

“It’s human nature. You’re going to be curious,” he said.

At this point, the man is primarily interested in establishing a better grasp of his lineage.

“I’m really just looking more for heritage and family line,” he said.

Whatever answers may come his way, a solved search still offers no guarantees.

It’s been 30 years since Sharp reunited with the daughter she gave up for adoption. The two don’t speak often but both of her children have gotten to know one another and become close.

“The only guarantee of an adoption reunion is the ability to say ‘I know’ instead of ‘I wonder,’” Sharp said.