‘Father Baker’ adoptee finds family, roots in Fredonia
Searching for answers
Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series.
Kristin Marsh Shepard was adopted as an infant and spent almost 20 years searching for her biological parents to understand who she is and where she came from. A SUNY Fredonia alumna, Shepherd discovered that she has more ties to the village than she initially thought. She believes current legislation should change so that other adoptees may have an easier journey discovering their heritage than she did, a story she recently shared with the OBSERVER.
Like all adoptees in New York state, Shepherd cannot access her original birth certificate. A 1935 New York law sealed birth certificates from adoptees, denying them access unless the courts deems it necessary, usually in the event of a medical emergency. Now, an important piece of legislation has made its way to Gov. Cuomo for approval: A bill to allow adoptees unrestricted access to their original birth certificates upon turning 18. The bill has received widespread bi-partisan support; on June 3 the New York state senate passed the bill in a 53-6 vote, and a few weeks later, the state assembly passed the bill in 126-2 vote.
“Groups who have lobbied for this legislation for years expect the governor to sign the bill into law,” Shepard told the OBSERVER. “I thought this might be a good time to share my story and my (birth) mother, Judy Taylor, not only granted permission, she loves the idea.”
Shepard (raised Kristin Muck) was placed with her adoptive family when she was four months old and grew up in North Collins. “When I was around 5 years old, my parents told me I was adopted. I still have the book they read to me: ‘And Now We Are a Family,'” she recalled. “All I knew is that people other than my parents had brought me into the world and could not give me the home they wanted for me, so they gave me to another family. … I wondered about my mother and my father all the time, especially her, and there’s a real hole in your life when you don’t know where you came from or why you were given up.”
A high school friend went on to attend SUNY Fredonia, and when Shepard visited him, she developed a crush on his roommate. Shepard recalled, “So that made me more inclined to go there! But it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with the area with its old trees and Victorian houses.”
She attended SUNY Fredonia from the fall of 1989 to May of 1994, with one year spent studying at the University of New Mexico. While a student, Shepard stayed in Fredonia almost every summer and lived in the Dunkirk-Fredonia area until 2000. “During those years, I worked at several places, most notably at the Upper Crust Bake House and in the children’s room of the Darwin R. Barker Library,” she said. “In the later ’90s, I continued study in English as a graduate student, and through an assistantship, I taught first-year writing, which is the same work I do now at the University of North Carolina in Asheville.”
While a grad student at SUNY Fredonia, Shepard lived in an apartment on the corner of Fourth and Dove streets when she began searching for her birth parents. “I first read the non-identifying information that I received from Our Lady of Victory Infant Home in Lackawanna,” she explained. “One of the documents listed my name as ‘Barbra Jean,’ which is the name I was given at birth. Judy was a singer and she named me after Barbra Streisand.”
Uncovering her past
Colloquially referred to as “Father Baker’s Home for unwed mothers,” OLV Infant Home was founded by Father Nelson Baker in 1906 to house and care for abandoned babies and their socially stigmatized, unwed mothers. In recent years, hundreds of people adopted from the facility have been reunited with their birth mothers; several have been featured on TLC’s program “Long Lost Family.” Many of these mothers were teenagers when their families sent them away to deliver and give up their babies. Such was the case with Judy, who gave birth to Shepard in 1972 at OLV.
“I don’t know the specific details and probably never will, but in short, Judy was young and unmarried, and in 1972, there was no social acceptance for women to have children out of wedlock,” Shepard explained. “Children born out of wedlock, even as late as the ’70s, were considered illegitimate — they used to even stamp this word right on the birth certificates!”
Shepard attended meetings of a post-adoption search and support group in Buffalo and learned questions to ask to get more information that the standard paperwork offered. In addition to her given name, she received other non-essential or identifying information about her parents, including their astrological signs and ages at the time of her birth.
Shepard later did a 23andMe DNA genetic testing kit but did not get any matches close enough to work with. A few years later, she tried Ancestry.com. “I had several second cousin matches, which is pretty good,” she recalled. “One of those was a man who turned out to be my father’s cousin. He was very into documenting the family history with an extensive family tree, and he was incredibly kind and helpful.”
Shepard was then able to determine who her biological grandmother was on her father’s side, and learned that she had two sons. She thought she resembled one more than the other and decided she would reach out to him.
Finding her mother was a bit more challenging, due to vague Ancestry matches, but a “Search Angel” (individuals who devote their time, resources and experience to helping adoptees search for their families) helped Shepard locate a relative of her biological maternal grandfather, Robert Taylor. Once she located his obituary, she discovered who his children are, including his youngest daughter, Judy. A Google search of Judy led Shepard to discover that she and her husband, Jeff Zariczny, are the owners of the Evergreen Tea Room and Guest House in Great Valley.
Read Sunday’s OBSERVER to learn how Shepard met her biological parents and discovered her many connections to Fredonia.