SALT LAKE CITY — Mankind's search for meaning dates back thousands of years.
Records of various civilizations are etched on cave walls, scratched into stone and left in time capsules buried deep in the earth.
But, the most telling of all historical information might be the DNA that makes up each and every human life.
"It's important to know where you come from," said Kim Newman, of West Jordan. She was raised by her mom and a stepdad, but never knew her biological father and always felt like the first chapter in the book of her life was missing.
"It's not really that you're missing out on a mom or a dad, because as an adopted person, you have them," she said. "It's an indescribable longing of wanting to know where you come from — that first chapter."
The desire was similar for Robin Marshall, who lives in Chicago.
"Every time I've gone to a doctor and they ask for a medical history, it's always unknown because I was adopted," she said.
Marshall wanted to know who her biological parents were since she was very young, but often shied away from the prospects of disrupting someone's family or unleashing guilt.
"It wasn't until I became a mother myself that I could appreciate even a small amount of what my birth mother must have gone through," Marshall, 51, said. "I can't imagine having to give up a child."
A girlfriend offered to continue her long-abandoned search and in November, located Marshall's biological mother and half-siblings in Utah.
Similar to Newman, her father has died, but the conversation that ensued filled the proverbial hole in Marshall's heart.
"She said, 'I've been waiting for this phone call for 51 years,'" Marshall said, adding that she and her biological mother talked for 2 ½ hours that day and have kept in contact ever since. A half sister she's never met texts or talks with her nearly every day.
"I felt like there was always a piece missing, a piece of the puzzle and after I talked to her, it was like I was whole. I felt whole," Marshall said.
People born into families might come to know their ancestors directly, though some, like Newman and Marshall, acquire different relatives through adoption and live with that ongoing thought that something, or someone, is missing.
"We've always wanted to know where we come from, it's inherent in everyone," said Rafi Mendelsohn, director of public relations for MyHeritage, the world's largest family history and DNA company formed 15 years ago solely to help people build their family trees.
Access to 8.4 billion physical records — newspaper articles, passenger lists, birth and death certificates, many of which are housed in Utah — give the more than 93 million worldwide users of MyHeritage a glimpse into the past. A 30-second swab of saliva sent to a genetics lab in Houston, however, can tie people together indefinitely.
"It's life-changing," Mendelsohn said.
Genealogists at MyHeritage — with offices in Lehi, Israel, California, Toronto and Kiev — just launched an initiative hoping to help 15,000 adoptees throughout the world find what they've been looking for by gifting free DNA test kits, as well as the time and resources needed to interpret the results and find people all over the world.
"By concentrating on this project, we hope to have a higher number of people searching and hope that will increase the chances of success for everyone," Mendelsohn said, adding that the company that houses the data doesn't aim to gain anything from the charitable offering.
"People can spend 20, to 30, to even 40 years searching and, now, they are able to take a test and maybe get a match with a relative, even a sibling or cousin of their mother or father," he said. MyHeritage will offer the typically $99 kits for free and can help with contacting relatives or facilitate meetings across the globe for people interested in finding family members.
"Many people get automatic matches and some need to do a little more work," Mendelsohn said.
MyHeritage is partnering on its DNA Quest project with the American Adoption Congress and adoption.com, to help adopted people find what they're looking for. Anyone interested must submit an application and will be notified of selection and sent a DNA test kit in May, with results available before the end of July.
"We've seen this be so powerful for adoptees," Mendelsohn said. "We've seen the impact it can make on people and the important outcome it can have."
The company has sold over a million kits in the last couple years, and Mendelsohn said the adoptive community makes up the smallest number of sales, but often leads to the highest impact in their personal lives.
A DNA test confirmed the name Newman's mother always knew, but that man had died of a stroke and never married or had any other children.
It wasn't the story Newman had hoped for, but it gave her access to a new line of ancestors, and using popular family history sites like MyHeritage, Ancestry.com and Family Search, among others, she can see photographs of some of their faces and read the recorded stories of their lives.
"I'm not disappointed in my own story," the 43-year-old mother of three said Thursday. "I've got my questions answered."
And while Marshall is only beginning to uncover the story of her own birth, she knows she was wanted and that has made such a difference.
She was born in a home for unwed mothers, where her own biological mother cared for her the first week of her life and was told she had to place the baby for adoption.
"She watched me get carried out the door until she couldn't see me," Marshall said, adding that the experience strained her mother's relationship with her grandmother. Marshall's first half sister is just 16 months younger.
"She said she wanted to have another baby right away because of me," Marshall said. "Every one of her kids knew about me. She said I wasn't a secret."
It was no surprise to her adoptive parents that she longed for a biological connection and they expressed their own gratitude, too, as they couldn't bear their own children and adopted three to raise as their own.
"My mom wanted her to know how much I was loved and to know, finally, after all these years, that she made the right decision," Marshall said. "I'm fortunate to have it turn out so well."
She always hoped to find her biological mother, but knew it would happen when the timing was right.
Approximately 7 million adoptees are living in the United States and many are searching for biological links to their past, or their heritage, as Newman calls it. It's a time-sensitive approach, as people involved in the search sometimes pass away before ever meeting or speaking to each other.
Newman grieved the ideas she dreamed up and hoped to find in her biological father, and still feels sad she never got to know him.
"But with that comes a great hole that is filled, that part of my story I didn't know has now been written," she said, adding that she loves to help other adoptees find their long-lost biological families and lives vicariously through the joy they often find.
"Don't be afraid to do it, or that it will hurt someone else to pursue your own happiness or sense of who you are," Newman said. "You're important, too. Don't put it off until they're gone."
Some state laws make it difficult to obtain old adoption records, and the traditional avenues of finding people — consulting adoption agencies, registries and genetic testing — are complicated. Genetic genealogy, using DNA testing, Mendelsohn said, has opened doors for a lot of families, including adoptees.
"When you're adopted, you always wonder, 'Who do I look like?' I don't look like anybody else, so you long for that connection," Marshall said. "I couldn't wait to be a mother because then I would have someone who looked like me, someone of my own."1 comment on this story
It's tough for Marshall to articulate what it felt like to finally find and speak with someone she felt she knew all along, and she is working on plans to someday meet her biological mother, but she will always belong to a tight-knit family in Chicago that took her in as a baby and loves her as their own.
"There is no feeling like it," Mendelsohn, who has witnessed many reunions, said. "The ultimate goal is to help people discover, preserve and share everything about their family history."
For more information about DNA Quest, or to apply for help from MyHeritage to find biological connections using DNA testing, visit dnaquest.org.