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Old roots, new branches: New Albany man connects with birth mom five decades later

NEW ALBANY • It was a hug 51 years in the making.

In March 2021, David Chapin, a New Albany resident, met his birth mother for the first time. For the first five decades of his life, he had no idea who she was. He didn't even know she existed.

A childhood suspicion

Chapin, 52, was born in Castro Valley, California, and adopted at birth by a couple named Jerry and Pearl Chapin. Jerry Chapin worked in lithography at the National Can Company the Alameda County area. When Chapin was 4 years old, the family moved to Memphis, where his dad got into ministry and taught at a Christian school.

From there, they went to Calhoun City where Chapin attended Grenada Lake Academy from age 6 to 11. And when his father got into the insurance business, they moved to New Albany, which became his hometown.

Despite a happy childhood, as far back as he can remember, Chapin had a feeling that he was adopted.

Thomas Wells | Daily Journal 

David Chapin sits in the living room of his New Albany home, near a picture he recently took with his biological mother, Lee Ann Fyten of Kansas. Last year, through the results of a DNA test, Chapin discovered the identity of his birth mother more than five decades after she gave him up for adoption. 

"They never told us," Chapin said of his adoptive parents. "It's just something that deep down in my soul, I just knew."

His sister, Kim Graham, felt the same. After a discussion with their father, in which he denied that she and her brother were adopted, Graham and Chapin confided in each other the feeling they'd both shared since childhood but had never vocalized to one another: the feeling that they'd been adopted.

That prompted Chapin to write to the Alameda County courthouse to request adoption records, if they existed. He received a letter in return telling him that he would need a lawyer to access any such records.

He didn't pursue it further, but felt a spark of hope.

"They didn't say they did exist," Chapin said. "But they didn't say they didn't."

A DNA test

In 2018, Chapin and Graham again discussed the nagging feeling that they had been adopted and casually floated the idea of taking a DNA test.

Last year, he finally did it.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Chapin was furloughed from his job as a cost analyst at Lane Furniture, so sitting at home with little to do, he ordered an at-home DNA test kit from 23andMe.

It was as simple as spitting into a tube, packing it up and sending it back to the company.

"I finally bit the bullet," Chapin told his sister. "I sent off a 23andMe kit."

But Graham had some news of her own.

She told Chapin that she'd recently called Leigh Chapin, their adoptive father's wife, to see if she knew anything about the kids having been adopted.

Leigh Chapin said no, that she hadn't. At the end of their discussion, Graham concluded that her father would have to take a 23andMe test himself for her to know definitively whether there was a genetic connection or not.

As it turned out, Jerry Chapin had already taken one. And when Graham took a test of her own, he didn't come back as a match.

Results lead to connections

Toward the end of June 2020, Chapin received the results of his test. He found them unsurprising.

Neither of his adoptive parents showed up as a match.

There was, however, a near-50% match: Richard Upjohn. David's biological father.

"That hit me hard right then," Chapin said.

Shortly after, Chapin sent his father an invitation to connect through 23andMe. Within hours, Upjohn’s profile disappeared, presumably because he had made his information private. But Chapin had seen his name, and he remembered it.

Along with his father, there were a couple of cousins listed — one from each side of his family. Chapin connected with a cousin on his mother's side who had an uncle with three daughters. Two of them were dead, but one was still living.

Chapin and his wife, Tonya Chapin, decided, based on age and hometown, that the living daughter must be his mom.

On July 10, a Friday night Chapin vividly remembers, he and his wife sent a Facebook message to the woman they believed to be his biological mother. It laid out details like the city and hospital where he was born, his birthday and his father's name.

The next day, they received a response.

"You're right on the money," the woman wrote. "I can't deny anything you've said."

'It was different to finally hear her voice'

Chapin had found his mother: Lee Ann Fyten.

"When (Tonya) said that she answered, my heart dropped to the bottom of my stomach and I was crying right then," Chapin said. "Because everything that I had fantasized or thought of ... was coming to fruition."

After a few initial messages through Facebook, Chapin and Fyten began emailing back and forth. They did that for months, and then began texting daily. They were having full conversations, one text message after another in real time.

Thomas Wells | Daily Journal 

Last year, David Chapin, left, of New Albany located his biological mother after 51 years and has discovered an entirely new family.

"I offered up my number and told her I'd like to talk to her," Chapin said. "She wasn't quite ready for that for a long while."

When mother and son talked on the phone for the first time, the conversation lasted about an hour.

"It was just like picking up with current conversations that we had in the last texts," Chapin said. "But it was different to finally hear her voice."

Giving up a son

Over time, Chapin learned the details of how and why he was given up for adoption.

Fyten was an airline stewardess during the Vietnam War, and the military routinely chartered airlines to fly to Vietnam by way of Hawaii, the Philippines and Japan. Chapin's father, Upjohn, was a lieutenant in the Air Force.

"He was based in Japan, so I would see him occasionally," Fyten said. "But it was nothing close."

Fyten let Chapin's father know that she was pregnant and later wrote him a letter to tell him that their son had been born. But, based on what Upjohn has since told Chapin, his father's commanding officer cast doubt on the letter and the situation as a whole. Ultimately, Upjohn wrote it off, and for 51 years felt sure that he did not have a son until Chapin reached out to him.

Fyten, then 24 years old, had to make a decision. She arranged for Chapin to be adopted immediately after birth.

"I had taken the bull by the horns and I knew what I was going to do," Fyten said.

When Chapin was born, she didn't get to see or hold him.

But while signing adoption papers, she happened to see his last name written upside down.

She always knew her son's last name was Chapin.

Mother and son meet five decades later

Around eight months after contacting Fyten, now 76 years old, Chapin and his wife traveled to her home in Kansas City, Kansas, where she took a job with Braniff International Airways after giving birth in 1969.

Chapin's wife recorded the moment he hugged his mom for the first time, the moment his mother first held her son.

"I don't think any words were said," Tonya Chapin said. "When he walked in, he immediately went to her and hugged her. And just melted."

In the video, Chapin walks casually to Fyten's front door. He's greeted by her husband, Mike Fyten, before embracing his mother.

Chapin recalled being nervous, anxious and overwhelmed, but if it were up to him, he would've run to Fyten's front door.

Fyten said there are no words to describe how it felt to meet her son.

"I never pictured what this baby could look like as an adult," Fyten said. "So, after 50 years, you know, you give up a baby and then he's in your house as an adult male. And it's just absolutely crazy! It was wonderful."

During that first visit, Fyten brought out a Lane Furniture keepsake box that she'd stored photographs in for 25 years.

It was an amazing, uncanny coincidence. Chapin had begun working at Lane in 1995, the same year Fyten got the box. And Chapin has a near-identical keepsake box in his own home.

Thomas Wells | Daily Journal 

After David Chapin met his biological mother after 51 years, they discovered they both had the same keepsake boxes at their respective homes.

In May 2021, Lee Ann and Mike Fyten came to Mississippi for a weekend to visit Chapin and his family at their New Albany home — Mother's Day weekend.

They had randomly picked the date, but the fact that it was Mother's Day couldn't have been a more fitting coincidence. Chapin got to celebrate the day with his birth mother for the first time.

"I've got a family down in Mississippi now," Fyten said.

Gaining other family members

Along with Fyten, Chapin has gained other new family members.

Mike, Fyten's husband, was instantly proud to have a new stepson.

"That's how he addresses him," Tonya Chapin said. "He's like, 'You're my family. This is my stepson.' That's something that he didn't have to do and he does."

Even before meeting Fyten, Chapin established a connection with her son, his half-brother, who is also named David although he goes by Dave.

At the age of 18, Fyten told Dave Fyten that he had a brother out there somewhere.

Now, Fyten has two sons born roughly seven years apart — both named David.

It was an eerie coincidence, Fyten said, that they have the same first name and were both born on the 27th day of a month.

Chapin has enjoyed getting to know his half-brother and his daughter, Phoebe Fyten, who also live in the Kansas City area.

Along with meeting her son, Fyten also gained a daughter-in-law and two grandchildren, Mason and Allyson Chapin.

It takes a relationship to be a grandmother, Fyten said, so she's reached out to his children by text and met when they visited Mississippi

"I'm trying to make up time and talk to his kids," Fyten said. "I try and text a lot so they know who I am, but it's hard to make up that time."

'I've hit the jackpot'

For Chapin, the experience of finding his mother has been amazing. His intent with taking the DNA test was to prove once and for all that he was adopted. But within two weeks of sending that test off, he found not only his birth mother, but an entirely new family.

"I've hit the jackpot, so to speak, in what I've found," Chapin said.

Fyten, too, feels like she won the lottery.

"This is absolutely crazy," Fyten said. "I say that every day. And then, when I hear David on the phone or we text during the evenings, I shake my head. I say, 'This is absolutely amazing.'"

Chapin's birthday is June 27, and Fyten told him that she thought of him every year on that day.

"She'd always wondered what happened to the baby that she gave up," he said.

Each summer when that day came around, Fyten would say to her husband, "Well, guess whose birthday it is today."

Likewise, Chapin always wondered about his birth mother, even before he knew he was adopted.

"All of this has put a face to somebody I didn't even really know existed," Chapin said. "I was hopeful that she was out there."

For Fyten, what once felt shameful has now become a blessing.

"Through the years, I never told anybody really," Fyten said. "I left California, came out here to Kansas City and made my life and I've been here ever since. I never really told anyone. It was my thing to get through and get over with and patch my life up, get David taken care of and move on."

But she's now told many people, some of which it has been difficult to tell because they never knew that part of her life.

Unfortunately, those in Fyten's life who would've been most excited — her parents, her sisters and a girlfriend who stuck by her side during the pregnancy — are gone.

"All these people would just go crazy knowing David is in my life now," Fyten said.

Unearthing roots of a family tree

From birth to his adoption and eventually finding his birth mother, Chapin believes God had a hand in it all.

"This is no doubt a God thing," Chapin said. "God orchestrated this whole thing. No man could have orchestrated this."

Growing up, Chapin never could look in the mirror and say for certain where his facial features and behaviors came from.

In Chapin's mother and half-brother, he now sees a family resemblance.

"You kind of see a little trait here and there," Chapin said. "It's been comforting to see those kinds of things. It goes beyond that reflection in the mirror. It's rooting from somewhere now, and I'm seeing where those roots start."

Two years ago, the dull pang in his Chapin's heart nourished a desire to find where his roots were buried. Through his search, he discovered not only his roots, but a family tree he didn’t even know was growing. Now, its branches have weaved among his own like fingers, bringing together multiple families not just by blood, but most importantly by will.

Boys & Girls Clubs of North Mississippi to host Holiday Burger Bash

TUPELO • Flipping burgers for a good cause — that's the goal of a Boys & Girls Clubs of North Mississippi (BGCNMS) fundraiser, next week.

The nonprofit will host a Holiday Burger Bash on Thursday, Dec. 2. Pick-up, located in downtown Tupelo in the CREATE Foundation alley on North Broadway Street, or delivery is from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Meals will be available for preorder only. Meals are $8 and include a smoked Angus burger, chips, a drink and a cookie. Proceeds benefit the Boys & Girls Clubhouses and their afterschool programming.

The organization is still seeking volunteers to wrap burgers.

According to BCNMS Director of Marketing & Special Events Evie Storey, every penny of the money raised during the event will be used to support the kids who participate in the local Boys & Girls Clubs.

“Every $8 that someone gives goes 100% to our clubs,” Storey said. “This is one of those fundraisers that truly does make a difference.”

The goal is to sell 500 burgers. Food was provided free of charge, with the Tupelo Advisory Board sponsoring. Presly Wallace is the volunteer cook. First Presbyterian Church will provide space to cook and assemble the burgers.

Last year, the annual Burger Bash in March was postponed until October. Over $3,000 was raised for the Tupelo clubs, according to the BGCNMS Facebook page.

In 2020, BGCNMS served 1,236 youth and provided 38,096 meals and snacks, according to its annual impact report. BGCNMS aims to provide welcoming, positive environments in which kids and teens have fun, participate in life-changing programs, and build supportive relationships with peers and caring adults, according to its website.

Among services and areas supported include providing tutoring help with homework with “Power Hour,” encouraging health and active lifestyles through the SMART Moves program, providing leadership and character development, offering physical activities and sports, career development, and exposure to the arts.

Storey said she's hoping to flip a lot of burgers and do a lot of good.

“We hope that everybody will want to have a good, after-Thanksgiving meal and after Christmas parade meal and enjoy one of our burgers, get their holiday shopping kicked off,” she said.

Vaccines making Thanksgiving easier, but hot spots remain

Families across the U.S. today are facing their second Thanksgiving of the pandemic. 

Overall, this year's holiday sees much of the  nation in better shape than the last, thanks to the vaccine, though some regions are seeing surges of COVID-19 cases that could get worse as families travel the country for gatherings that were impossible a year ago.

Nearly 200 million Americans are fully vaccinated. That leaves tens of millions who have yet to get a shot in the arm, some of them out of defiance. Hospitals in the cold Upper Midwest, especially Michigan and Minnesota, are filled with COVID-19 patients who are mostly unvaccinated.

Michigan hospitals reported about 3,800 coronavirus patients at the start of the week, with 20% in intensive care units, numbers that approach the bleakest days of the pandemic's 2020 start. The state had a seven-day new-case rate of 616 per 100,000 people Monday, highest in the nation.

In the West, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah and Montana also ranked high. Some Colorado communities are turning to indoor mask orders to reduce the risk, a policy that has also been adopted in the Buffalo, New York, area and Santa Cruz County, California.

The statistics in Michigan are "horrible," said Dr. Matthew Trunsky, a respiratory specialist at Beaumont Health in suburban Detroit.

"We got cold and moved indoors and have huge pockets of unvaccinated people," he said. "You can't have pockets of unvaccinated people who don't want to be masked and not expect to get outbreaks, not expect to lose parents, not expect to lose teachers."

During a recent office visit, he encouraged a patient who uses oxygen to get vaccinated. The patient declined and now is in the hospital with COVID-19, desperately relying on even more oxygen, Trunsky said.

He said he continues to encounter patients and their family members espousing conspiracy theories about the vaccine.

"We've had several people in their 40s die in the last month — 100% unvaccinated," Trunsky said. "It's just so incredibly sad to see a woman die with teenagers. Especially with that age group, it's nearly 100% preventable."

In Detroit, where less than 40% of eligible residents were fully vaccinated, Mayor Mike Duggan said hospitalizations have doubled since early November.

"We have far too many people in this country that we have lost because they believed some nonsense on the internet and decided not to get the vaccine," said Duggan, a former hospital executive.

Despite hot spots, the outlook in the U.S. overall is significantly better than it was at Thanksgiving 2020.

Without the vaccine, which became available in mid-December 2020, the U.S. a year ago was averaging 169,000 cases and 1,645 deaths per day, and about 81,000 people were in the hospital with COVID-19. The U.S. now is averaging 95,000 cases, 1,115 deaths and 40,000 in the hospital.

Airports have been jammed. More than 2.2 million people passed through security checkpoints on Friday, the busiest day since the pandemic shut down travel early in 2020. On some recent days, the number was twice as high as Thanksgiving a year ago.

Sarene Brown and three children, all vaccinated, were flying to Atlanta from Newark, New Jersey, to see family. People close to them have died from COVID-19.

"I'm thankful that I'm here, and I'm not in heaven, and I'm thankful for my family and that God helped me survive," said Neive Brown, 7, who got her first dose.

More than 500,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 since the last Thanksgiving, for an overall death toll of over 770,000.

"We would encourage people who gather to do so safely after they've been fully vaccinated, as we've been saying for months now," said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "I do think that this is very different because we actually have the tools to prevent the vast majority of cases."

Dr. Eric Topol, head of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, said his optimism is tempered by the delta variant's ability to jump from person to person, especially among the millions who are unvaccinated or are due for a booster.

"That equals very high vulnerability," Topol said.

Mask orders in indoor public spaces were set to take effect Wednesday in three Denver-area counties, and Denver's mayor planned to announce a mask policy Tuesday.

Arizona reported at least 2,551 COVID-19 patients in hospitals, far below the peak of last winter but still reason for concern. Officials said beds were limited.