The Universal Asian got to know Linda Rounds, President of 325KAMRA—a non-profit organization dedicated to helping Korean adoptees reconnect with their birth families.
Tell us a bit about your background!
I am a Korean adoptee born in Nopae-dong near Paju in South Korea. I was raised by a mixed-race Korean couple in Itaewon (Seoul) until I was nine. My family moved to San Diego in 1973. I moved to Texas in 2013. I did not find out I was adopted until I was 28 years old. It was quite a shock. I have a B.S. in Business Management from Pepperdine University and a certificate in Human Resources Management from Phoenix University. My professional responsibilities include finance/accounting, legal/compliance, human resources management, recruiting, real estate investing, and property management. I have three adult children; one is married, so I now have a 1-year-old granddaughter. I also have a German Shepherd. As my children got older and started driving and hanging out more with their friends, I began volunteering my free time to my community and several non-profits. I actually currently hold board positions for three non-profits. I believe in giving back and paying it forward, as I am very grateful for all I have and my experiences in my life.
What was the inspiration behind 325KAMRA?
The founders of the organization were mixed-race Korean adoptees. They found paternal birth family members via DNA testing and came up with the idea of DNA testing birth families in Korea. In the beginning, 325KAMRA was an acronym for Korean American Mixed Race Adoptees (KAMRA) to represent who the group of founders were. The number “325” was the hotel room number where their meeting took place while attending a weekend conference in San Francisco. Over time, the dynamics of our organization changed, and we also realized that our acronym was not inclusive to the community we serve. So we updated our name. While our acronym remains the same, we decided that the following better represents who we are and what we do: Korean Adoptees Making Reunions Attainable.
How does the DNA testing work?
We provide free kits (after vetting) from FTDNA, which has one of the largest databases of people from around the world. These are autosomal tests, so they can provide a range of close to distant relative matches. The DNA tests available in Korea are processed differently. For example, the ones that the Korean Embassy distributes for the Korean National Police Agency is, simply put, more like a paternity test, a one-to-one test. Those will match you to a specific parent or sibling. Half siblings typically do not match. Neither can cousins or grandparents match. DNA tests are administered by either a cheek swab or saliva collection into a small tube. Then, it is shipped off to the DNA company lab, and results are usually available within six weeks. With autosomal tests, shared segments of DNA are measured by centimorgans (cMs). When there is a match of 200 cMs (typically second cousin range) or more, our birth search angels (volunteer genealogists) get to work. Their knowledge and research skills help us narrow down who potential close family members are if there isn’t an immediate family match. We also end a birth search case with DNA testing to confirm the family relation.
If you’re willing to share, what was your experience like searching for and reconnecting with some of your birth family members?
It took over two years for the search angels to find my birth father. Sometimes it can take a while; so we say it is a journey and patience is needed. Actually, he and his immediate family had not been DNA tested. It was a cousin just under 200 cMs who was a DNA match to me, which is why it took time for research from the search angels. I had just about given up on finding him when I got a phone call late one night that there were two brothers where one might be my father. It took about another week or so to get in contact with one of the brothers. He admitted by phone that he had a baby girl in Korea in 1964. We were connected by phone later that evening. It was so surreal. I told him that I could not get emotionally invested until he took a DNA test to confirm that he was my father. He agreed. Being the patient person that I am (lol), I flew to his house the following day with a DNA kit. We spent a couple of hours chit-chatting and having dinner. He showed me a stack of old photos from his service in Korea, with a young Korean woman. He also showed me many pictures of the Korean woman with a baby that she’d mailed to him after his tour ended and he returned stateside. One of those pictures was the only baby picture that I had ever seen and had in my possession. It was the same picture of a 2-month-old baby. For us, that was plenty of confirmation he was my father. And, of course, the DNA test that was processed also confirmed it as well. My dad’s wife had always known about me. As did his best friend, his brother, and his daughters so I wasn’t too much of a surprise to them. They have been so warm and welcoming. We have a great relationship. We visit a few times a year and it’s always so much fun. I will always spend Father’s Day with my dad (except when COVID-19 prevented us last year).
What advice would you give to someone who is on the fence about searching for their birth family?
It is all such a personal choice. I didn’t start searching until both my adoptive parents passed in 2015. I actually didn’t think it’d be possible to find any birth family since they never gave me any adoption paperwork or information about my early life. They had always intended to keep my adoption a secret and so I never wished to make them feel badly about me searching or being curious. I started out just curious about my ethnicity and heritage. And then when I had a third cousin match, plus other distant relative matches, the birth family searching bug bit me. It was amazing to see blood relatives on paper (website)! Sometimes, an adoptee feels that they don’t want to be rejected a second time, as many have adoption paperwork which says that the baby/child was abandoned. We have found that adoption paperwork is not always accurate and that “being abandoned” was used more frequently than it actually happened. We have also made birth family connections where it’s the adoptee who chooses not to pursue meeting or having a reunion with the family. So, it’s just all a personal choice. But, I think we start wondering about our birth family when we start to have families of our own. Or, if we have a medical condition because we have no family medical history. DNA testing does not require travel or money. My advice would be to DNA test. Once the results are in, then they can decide whether to pursue finding family or not. However, another point about DNA testing is that your matches may actually help another adoptee who is searching to find family! We have had that happen. That’s why I say we are all in this together.
How has the pandemic affected the way 325KAMRA operates?
At the beginning of the pandemic, we weren’t sure what would happen. We felt that things would slow down. And it did for in-person events we had for DNA testing. However, we actually had an increase in requests for DNA kits by mail! We also got very busy doing research and matching family members. It felt like we were averaging birth family introductions and reunions every 3 – 4 weeks. These were handled by KakoTalk or Zoom.
What would you like to see in 325KAMRA’s future?
I would love to see every Korean adoptee learn and know about their true family heritage/background whether they wish to reunite with family or not. I think that’s something that every person has a right to. For instance, medical history becomes important when an adoptee begins having medical issues. I would love to see every Korean family searching for a lost family member be reunited. Many who were lost were taken to orphanages and adopted to the US or Europe. So, what I see in our future is a more concerted effort to distribute 240,000 – 500,000 more DNA tests. It is estimated that there are up to 250,000 Korean adoptees. We are only working with close to 7,000 testers to date. That’s only a drop in the bucket for how many adoptees and families we are currently helping. We need donations to help us achieve that goal. We have no paid staff at this time, so donations go directly to purchasing more DNA kits. While we have a major donor who has made it possible for us to purchase our kits thus far, more corporate sponsorships and government grants would be wonderful.
What advice would you give your younger self?
There was a perfectly good reason why I didn’t look at all like my parents! I did not resemble them in looks or personality at all. I am very similar in personality to my birth dad. Anyhow, I’ve always felt like something was missing. “Missing” isn’t even accurately describing it. Longing? Acceptance? Whatever it is, I’m sure it has to do with being separated from my birth mom as a toddler. So my advice to my younger self would be: “Don’t try so hard to be the good girl, the smart girl or the pretty girl, or to be perfect. You are perfect just the way you are and you are loved.”