Last weekend, an annual picnic for members of Australia’s Greek community from the Peloponnesian villages of Karveli and Lada, located just north of Kalamata, received a very special guest.
Penny Haskins (née Skordas) came all the way from Alachua, Florida in the United States to meet her distant cousins face to face, the culmination of a journey which began more than two years ago with a DNA test.
Her attendance was so anticipated in fact, that she was presented with a certificate of appreciation to commemorate the serendipitous reunion.
And unbeknownst to her Australian kin, they were receiving a guest with a PhD in nuclear physics, whose experiments in induced radioactivity made their way beyond the atmosphere on NASA’s space shuttle.
“It’s the first one we’ve ever given out,” Penny’s distant cousin Evan Kourambas who awarded her the honour, told Neos Kosmos with a grin, in an interview at our offices.
Thanks to the marvels of modern science, genetic testing services provided by companies like Ancestry and 23 & Me are delivering novel methods for far flung relations to reunite, even if they live half a world away.
Speaking with Neos Kosmos, Penny revealed that this trans-continental familial quest started thanks to a previously unknown relative in Texas.
“Shortly after I did my DNA test, a lady in Texas got in contact with me. She’d been adopted as a child from Greece. She told me we were related and that she was trying to find her family,” she explains.
Through the use of computer algorithms, companies are now connecting potential relatives by way of a virtual family tree, highlighting possible genetic matches so that users can follow the trail.
It was through a match with Evan’s cousin Joanne Ligouris that he and Penny first became acquainted.
“From there, after a while I was invited to the extended family Facebook group, I was planning to come to Australia in any case as I’ve always wanted to; and then they asked if I’d like to come along to the picnic!”
“What you do with Ancestry, is you can message anybody you have a match with and wait for a response. I’d say that probably 75 per cent of the time you get no answer… but every once in a while, you get someone that’s interested.”
Born in Macon, Georgia; as a child Penny’s family moved often owing to her father’s service as a command pilot in the United States Air Force.
His work took them across the country, even to Japan for a period in the 1950’s.
Though Penny notes that as a result, she never had the opportunity to be immersed in her heritage, despite her parents’ upbringing in an Hellenocentric environment.
“My Parents tried to teach me Greek but it didn’t stick, if I was my mother I would’ve said ‘tough you’ve got to!’ but in the end I didn’t and I’m a bit disappointed that’s the case to be honest.”
In 1901, Penny’s grandfather Panagiotis Kosivoulogos immigrated from the village of Karveli to the US with his uncle and cousin. Initially settling in Philadelphia, over the years the family spread across the country, from Montana to Illinois.
His descendants now congregate yearly for an autumn festival at St Luke’s Orthodox Church just outside Philadelphia.
Inspired by the genetic revelations, it was during a trip to her ancestral village that Penny made headway in her efforts to track down relatives far and wide.
“I was trying to talk with some folks at the next table, but I didn’t speak Greek and they didn’t speak English so they brought over a fella to translate,” she says.
That man happened to be Evan Kourambas’ uncle.
“So, I asked if they’d be happy to do these DNA tests, one of the gents who didn’t speak English said yes… turns out he was my third cousin!”
“If I gave out the tests to everybody there I would’ve found a gazillion relatives!” she laughs.
Penny says that as she gets older she’s discovering a deep-seated desire to embrace her heritage, something she feels she missed out on having not lived among a Greek community in her youth.
She says the close-knit nature of her Australian relatives’ extended family was a pleasure to experience.
“The young folks came, the children, the high schoolers, college students and newlyweds, they all made time to join with the family.”
“To me as one of the elders, well those are important values, I think.”
Though precisely how Penny shares blood with her Australian family is a matter of ongoing research.
“Until recently we weren’t sure exactly what degree of relation Evan and I shared, but we’ve now found out through the testing that his mother and I are distant cousins! So, we’ve filled in that gap in the tree.”
Previously Evan hadn’t showed up as a possible match on Penny’s virtual tree, indicating that as marvelous as the tests are, there is a limit to their efficacy.
“It seems like the connection goes back to a great great grandfather. I made three trips to the municipal archives in Kalamata last year to find out exactly where it all begins but we’re not quite there yet.”
Soon Penny will be off to try and find the descendants of one of her father’s cousins in Sydney, she’d originally intended to leave this weekend, however…
She’s caught wind of the Antipodes Festival and so decided she’s got to stay and see what all the fuss is about.
As she puts it “I do love a good Greek festival, back in the states if there’s one within a hundred miles I’ll go.”
Evidently, even ten thousand miles isn’t enough to keep Penny away from an opportunity to embrace her roots.