Who do you think you are?
Adults occasionally ask that of children in a scolding tone. But that isn’t the case at the LeMoyne Center in East Washington, where Joyce Ellis, the executive director, pleasantly posed the question to young people in the center’s after-school programs. She wanted to know what they considered to be their ethnic makeup – Who do you think you are? – before the youngsters find out conclusively about the waters comprising their gene pools.
“Some kids think they come from two or three backgrounds,” she said. “We want to show them they are a mix of many backgrounds. We want the kids to embrace who they are.”
Thanks to a $10,000 grant from the Washington County Community Foundation, Ellis, volunteer coordinator Leslie Brock and five youths were able to undergo DNA testing that will provide that proof. They were tested within the past month, through ancestry.com and africanancestry.com, and the results are due back in mid- to late February. After the youngsters get them, they will be filmed discussing their true biological identities and how they differ from what they expected.
The film and a quilt, featuring history-related squares made by after-school participants, will be unveiled at a Black History Month presentation Feb. 28 at the center, which provides education, arts, health and recreational programs near the Washington city line. The presentation will begin at 5:30 p.m., an hour after doors open.
Ellis said she was inspired by the TV hit “Who Do You Think You Are?” – a popular genealogy series produced in the United States for TLC network. Families of select individuals, usually celebrities, are traced via DNA, and the results are frequently surprising.
“We got the idea from the show,” Ellis said. “But (the subjects) are all adults. I thought I’d love to do this from the children’s perspective.”
Collection of the DNA required the five kids to either spit into a container or submit to a mouth swab, with the evidence sent off for analysis. The findings, in some instances, will likely vary from expectations the fearless five expressed to videographer Allen Bankz, a center employee who filmed and interviewed them individually Jan. 19 about who they thought they were.
The young participants are Kaprice Johnson, 11; Serena Pierce, 13; Alexandra Berumen, 13; Deitrick Stogner, 14; and Daisean Lacks, 10, all of whom were encouraged to discuss their heritages with older family members.
Kaprice said a number of relatives hail from Western Pennsylvania, especially around Carnegie and Pittsburgh. Her mother is Irish with red hair “and a few freckles.”
Serena said one of her great-grandmothers was from Italy and a great-great-grandmother was Irish.
Alexandra, who assists with the center’s Spanish class, said her family is Mexican ... “fully, as far as I know.”
Deitrick considers himself African-American with strong Chicago ties, an athletic heritage and a grandmother who is partly American Indian.
Asked about his background, Daisean said his father is African-American, his mother is white and his family is mostly from Pittsburgh. He is still learning about a relative from Virginia who, unwittingly, gained renown following her death in 1951.
Henrietta Lacks succumbed to cervical cancer at age 31. During treatments, doctors removed two cervical samples without telling her, and her cells have provided a major boost to medical research. The cells, known as HeLa (formed from the first two letters of Henrietta and Lacks), were instrumental in Jonas Salk’s development of his polio vaccine along with other lab procedures.
The DNA project is part of the LeMoyne Center’s Road to Success program, an educational and socialization endeavor for kindergartners through 12th-graders. About 90 participate in the after-school programs, including Daisean’s brothers, Lesae and Chris.
Those five, and Brock, aren’t the only ones at the center interested in learning who they are. Ellis embarked on a personal journey ahead of them, on ancestry.com.
“I started a family tree process and have gone back seven generations,” she said. “I have Irish and Indian in my background.”
Ellis, who is African-American, was the only one of the seven to submit to both testing procedures. She is a global traveler who said the shade of her skin sometimes affects the perceptions people in other nations have of her ethnicities.
“I was in Italy and people there thought I might be Italian because of my color,” she said. “I was unrelatable to people in Africa and they were unrelatable to me.”
Soon, she, Brock and five kids age 10 to 14 will find out who they are.
“We pray this program will bring a lot of balance to these kids,” Ellis said. “They will find they are a microcosm of many things.
“We want the kids to see we all bleed red.”