By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
Knowing he was adopted and had questions about his family health history, a friend gifted Curtis Williams a DNA kit in hopes the results could provide some answers.
While Williams’ interest was sparked, he wasn’t pressed about it and the kit sat in a desk drawer, unopened, for nearly three years.
“I wanted to do it when I was ready,” the Elk Grove resident said. “When I was ready to go there.”
Williams, 55, was recently thrust into an unexpected journey of discovery. He’s currently appearing in the unique television competition show, “Relative Race” on the BYUtv network. It’s a bit like “Amazing Race” meets Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s “Finding Your Roots.”
The show, in its 10th season, partners with Ancestry.com to find long lost relatives. It offers up “healing, hope and new beginnings” as teams race across the country in an adventure that literally uses their DNA as a roadmap. Teams also vie for a $50,000 jackpot.
Williams, part of this season’s blue team, is a veteran, an entrepreneur and works in the civil rights department of a major transportation agency. He also does some acting and was introduced to the show as a potential casting opportunity. He was “floored” at actually being selected because it meant that the producers found something, or better yet, someone.
“I was curious about whether I had any siblings and I was curious about health history because when you’re adopted, you have no idea what actually runs in families,” Williams shared. “It was important to me, especially with kids, so I would want to give them that information as well, if I could find out anything,” he said of his reasons for participating.
Williams had previously written to the Missouri agency that handled his adoption, seeking information about his biological parents.
“The state of Missouri is pretty strict on the information that they actually share with you,” he said.
While a lot of the response was redacted, he was able to piece things together.
“I found out [my mother’s] whole story about how the adoption process went, why she made the decision she made. I found out that she had a sister and two brothers and all of that,” he said. “It did give me a little medical history – that she had a kidney ailment and one of her sisters suffers from asthma, which was kind of on point because I have asthma, as do several of my children.”
While the info was interesting, Williams was frustrated by the hoops he’d have to go through to learn more.
“I thought, ‘You know what, I just don’t really have time for it.’ So the test just sat there.”
Williams said the paperwork offered no information about his biological father other than his birth mother’s narrative that “he found out I was pregnant, then he left and I never heard from him again.” In the past, he’d figured perhaps the man had died in the Vietnam War and that was likely why he’d never heard from him.
Williams went into “Relative Race” not knowing exactly who he’d meet, but he thought it would be someone on his mother’s side of the family. Everyone he met, however, was from his father’s side. The introductions changed everything he thought he knew.
His father, Cye Casey, wasn’t dead after all.
“From what I was told – and this has already been aired – when I met Joyce, my father’s sister, they had been trying to find me since day one,” Williams shared.
According to the aunt, they’d asked his biological mom to adopt him.
“She was not having it at all,” he recalled of the story he recently learned. “They had been looking for me and looking for me. But I will say this: the way that the adoption paperwork was, the way she arranged this adoption, they would have never found me in a million years.”
He wasn’t given a name on his original birth certificate that lists the biological mother. A second birth certificate lists his adoptive parents’ name.
The mother who raised him passed away in 1997.
“I never would have even thought about this if my mother was still alive because I just thought my mother was a very loving and emotional and affectionate person. I never would have done anything to try to hurt her feelings,” Williams said.
He didn’t tell his adoptive father what he was doing until after the filming finished in June. Turns out, he didn’t need to be so secretive.
“After it was over, we talked and he was like, ‘You know what, Curtis? Me and your mother always wanted that for you. We always wanted you to find out if you had family out there. We wanted you to find out as much as you could about your biological family.’ I was really taken aback by that,” he said. “I had no idea that they had even discussed that or that they were supportive of that, or [that] they were that open with it.”
His father, who lives in Kansas, is watching the episodes. “I didn’t know he would be interested in watching the show,” Williams said. “He was like, ‘Man, I saw that picture of your biological dad and you guys look just like twins.’ He’s more excited than I am. That’s love right there.”
It’s All ‘Relative’
Williams doesn’t refer to the couple who raised him as his adoptive parents. They’re simply his parents.
“My parents told me when I was 5 years old that I was adopted,” he shared. “I still remember to this day, I was like, ‘Well, if they really loved me, then they never would have put me up for adoption. I literally remember saying that 50 years ago. Growing up, I never thought about it, but I think in my teenage years I developed this narrative in my head that she was probably young, probably in high school, somebody probably promised to marry her and she ended up getting pregnant, he left and she felt like ‘You know what, I can’t raise this child on my own. I don’t have the means and I want the child to have a better life.’
“When I read that report from Missouri, it was almost word for word what I had thought when I was young.”
While he didn’t lack anything as a child, he grew up without siblings and there were obvious differences between him and his many cousins.
“Being adopted, no one looked like me. This is my family, but there’s no resemblance,” Williams said. “You don’t know why you have some of the quirks you have and why you are the way you are, why you do some things you do.”
When he started meeting his biological family members, it all started making sense. “First of all, when I saw a picture of my biological father, I was like, ‘Dang, really? This is insane.’”
The two, it seems, have the same laugh and similar mannerisms. “I see where a lot of who I am and the way I am comes from,” Williams said. “It’s crazy. DNA is strong.”
Williams also discovered that he has 11 siblings, including a brother who looks a great deal like him. The two are the same age.
“Me and my brother are three weeks apart,” Williams said. “That’s probably why things didn’t work out. She was probably so mad about this whole situation.”
Meeting his new relatives has been an eye-opening experience for Williams and the introductions didn’t stop when the cameras did. He also has met a younger sister on his mother’s side.
“She had no idea that I existed,” Williams said.
The show found and reached out to his biological grandmother, who is in her early 90s. The woman was confused because she never knew her daughter had given birth to a son in 1967. Word got back to Williams’ biological mother and he said she immediately contacted the show and demanded that they stop contacting her family. The secret, however, could not go back in the bag.
“Because my sister was going to hear about it through the show’s efforts of contacting family, she had to tell my sister. And my sister was like, ‘Well, I want to meet him. I want to talk to him. I want to know who he is. This is my brother.’”
They met two months ago in Santa Barbara.
“Her and her husband flew in on vacation. We hung out for a week. It was a great time. She told me that other members of the family are interested in meeting me.”
Keep Your Eye On The Prize
DNA kits are readily available these days from companies like Ancestry.com and 23andme, which is where Williams’ friend got one for him. So not everyone has to go on a reality TV show to find connections to family. Williams, though, is glad he did.
“It just depends on what your expectations are and what it is that you’re looking for out of this experience,” he said. “If you get what you’re searching for then I think it’s a good thing, but you’ve got to be open minded and have a little bit of tough skin and be prepared for whatever you’re going to learn.”
Williams learned that the woman who gave birth to him doesn’t want to meet him at present.
“If you’re not mentally ready to deal with [being on the show], it can take a toll on people because hearing that your biological mother’s like, ‘Yeah, I don’t want to have nothing to do with him, tell him I wish him the best, but that’s all I got,’ for some people that might hurt. For me, it was like, well, OK.”
While that meeting may never materialize, Williams said he walked away from the television show fulfilled.
“I got the answers that I was looking for. I found out about family history, especially family medical history. I’ve learned about the siblings that welcomed me with open arms,” he said.
With several episodes of the current “Relative Race” season yet to air, Williams can’t say much about who won the $50,000 prize, but he feels as if he won something just as valuable.
“These are my blood relatives and I don’t think you can really put a price on what that means,” Williams said. “It’s been an interesting journey and it just continues every day.”