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Cheryl Edwards was abandoned at birth in West Philly in 1967. After sharing her story with The Inquirer this year, she found her biological family.

Shelly Ward-Moore was going through her email on June 16 when she got to The Inquirer’s morning newsletter. The subject line that day was, “Can you help her find her biological parents?”

Believing the line referred to an event that happened this year, Ward-Moore tried to delete the email, but for some reason, she couldn’t.

“I thought my computer was hacked,” she said. “It was almost like, ‘You’re not going to delete this until you read it,’ so I said, ‘Maybe I just need to read this anyway.’ ”

The featured story in the newsletter that day was about Cheryl Edwards, a woman who was found in a pillowcase as a newborn in a Philadelphia rowhouse. The headline read: “Abandoned at birth in West Philly in 1967, she still seeks answers.”

“As soon as I saw the headline I was like, ‘I know this story!’ And as soon as I saw my grandfather’s name I screamed,” Ward-Moore, 65, of West Oak Lane, said. “I was the only one home and I ran up the steps and down the steps and I was screaming ‘OH MY GOD! OH MY GOD! This is the baby!’ ”

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Within 24 hours of Edwards’ story running online, Ward-Moore, her sister, Geraldine Ward, 62, and several members of their extended family contacted The Inquirer to say they not only knew Edwards’ story, but they believed they were her biological relatives.

“I’ll tell her everything she wants to know. I will 100% be willing to do a DNA test,” Ward-Moore said the day after the story ran. “Even if we’re not related, I feel connected to her. I’ve been through days since yesterday.”

On Aug. 13 — one day before Edwards’ 54th birthday — DNA test results proved what Ward-Moore believed all along: Edwards is her first cousin. A few weeks later, DNA testing also confirmed Edwards has a half-brother.

“Since the age of 9 up until the age of 53 I had no idea about my past. All of those years of wondering and not 24 hours after the story goes out, we get an answer. I’m still blown away by it,” Edwards said. “For people to read the story in its entirety and make immediate connections and act on it, it had to be God-ordained. I can’t explain it any other way.”

» READ MORE: Life remains ‘this big question mark’ for a woman abandoned at birth almost 54 years ago in West Philly (from June)

Hidden in a pillowcase

On Oct. 2, Edwards gathered with members of her newfound family at 3616 Haverford Ave., the West Philly site where she was abandoned as a newborn. Only a vacant lot remains where the rowhouse she was found in once stood, but the knowledge of what happened to her there at her birth and what brought her back for the first time all these years later moved her to tears.

“It’s absolutely amazing, overwhelming,” Edwards said. “It’s just a blessing. It really is a blessing.”

For two hours, those gathered at the site hugged and cried and prayed together, as if to rechristen the space and reclaim Edwards into their family.

“I’m sorry how it had to be, but we’re going to make it better for her because we’re going to stand by her no matter what and give her all the support and love she needs,” said Geraldine Ward, Edwards’ first cousin. “And she can always know that she has a family to count on if she needs anything.”

The moment was a stark contrast of Edwards’ lifelong greatest fear — that if she ever did find her biological family, they might reject her all over again.

Edwards was a newborn, her umbilical cord cut but still attached, when she was placed inside a pillowcase and hidden under a dresser in a vacant room of an otherwise occupied rowhouse on Aug. 14, 1967.

According to reports from The Inquirer and Philadelphia Tribune at the time, James Drain, a teenager who lived in the house, heard Edwards’ cries — which he believed to be the clucks of a chicken — and ran to get his mother, Hattie. She too believed the sounds were from a chicken and when she found the moving pillowcase under the dresser, she went to get a third resident of the building, George Ikard.

Ikard, 61, pulled the pillowcase and its writhing contents from below the dresser and put it in the trash behind the house.

He never looked inside. He was too afraid, he told a reporter at the time.

But Margaret Rogers, a 50-year-old neighborhood resident who saw the scene unfold, was not. She pulled the pillowcase from the trash and discovered Edwards inside. Rogers took the newborn into the house and heated up milk for her as Hattie Drain called the police.

Edwards — who weighed 5 pounds, 7 ounces, and was estimated to be between 12 and 24 hours old — was taken to Philadelphia General Hospital, where a nurse who cared for her named her Cheryl. After three months there, with no leads as to the identity of her parents, Edwards was placed in foster care with a loving Overbrook couple, the late Ernest Lee Sr. and Susan Edwards. She believed they were her birth parents until she was 9, when they told her she’d been abandoned as a baby and they wanted to officially adopt her.

The three-paragraph memo Edwards’ parents were given when they took her into their care offered few details about her past. In 2019, Edwards reached out to The Inquirer to see if the paper had written a story about the day she was discovered. It was the first time she read the names of Drain, Ikard, and Rogers and learned the difficult details of her first day.

Over the years, Edwards, who moved to College Park, Md., in 2017, thought about taking a DNA test to find her birth family, but feared if she was matched with relatives, they’d only reject her again.

After losing several friends to COVID-19 and going through grief counseling this year, Edwards reached back out to The Inquirer to share her story. She did it to seek closure. She did it to let others who’ve been abandoned know they are not alone. And she did with the smallest of hopes that somebody might recognize a part of their own story in hers.

“Honestly, I didn’t think that anyone would respond,” she said. “I was holding out hope that someone knew something, I just didn’t know who.”

‘Nobody left bread crumbs’

The first emails in response to Edwards’ story were from strangers who wanted to tell her they admired her courage, armchair genealogists who offered their help, and fellow adoptees who offered their support.

“It was so overwhelming because everybody is going through something, so for people just to put all of that aside, to read that story and to respond the way they did, it was a reminder that there are people out there who do care, and they don’t have to know you to care,” Edwards said.

As those messages were coming in during the day, Ward-Moore was calling her relatives to tell them to read Edwards’ story. At 10:22 p.m., she sent her own email to The Inquirer.

“I am the granddaughter of Mr. George Ikard. OH MY GOD … At the time of the incident I was 12 years old, so I remember the incident like it was yesterday,” she wrote, in part. “We always wondered what happened to the baby from August 1967. I have a wealth of information to give to you for Cheryl Edwards.”

Edwards, Ward-Moore wrote, was “the spitting image” of one of her aunts.

Ward-Moore’s grandfather, Ikard, had 12 children and worked as a farmer. His wife died young and at the time Edwards was found, he was renting a room at 3616 Haverford Ave. The day after Edwards was discovered, Ward-Moore recalls her grandfather coming to her mom’s house with police and calling down her 19-year-old aunt, who stayed between their house and Ikard’s.

“He said, ‘Get down here … you left that baby!’ I found out my grandfather thought it was his daughter who did it,” Ward-Moore said. “In all the years of my life, it was always rumored in the family that she had the baby.”

Cops took her in for questioning but she was later released without charges, Ward-Moore said. Within days of the incident, family members said she moved down South, where she stayed for years before returning to Philadelphia. She eventually married, had one son, and later, got divorced.

Today, that woman is still alive and living in a nursing home down South, according to family members, but about 12 years ago, she suffered a medical condition that left her unable to speak. The Inquirer is withholding her name because she’s unable to talk or answer questions, but DNA testing has proven her son is Edwards’ half-brother.

While some members of the family believed the baby from 1967 died, others, including Ward-Moore’s late mother, would sometimes insinuate she might still be alive. Ward-Moore often thought about searching online to see if she could find her, but without a name or any clue as to who adopted her, she had little to go on.

“When I would hear stories about people leaving their babies, I always thought back to that baby and wondered if someone is out there,” Ward-Moore said. “Nobody left bread crumbs. This story was her only way of reaching out. If she wasn’t brave enough to put it in the paper she would have never known. I praise her and I’m just proud of her.”

Another connection

As The Inquirer relayed the details provided by Ward-Moore and her relatives to Edwards, she was in shock.

“It hasn’t even been 24 hours. I promised myself I wouldn’t cry. This is unbelievable! Just the simple fact that there was a connection to someone who was there, I thought we wouldn’t find anybody,” she said. “If you could see the look on my face, it’s like I’m dreaming.”

Edwards was given the names and numbers of Ward-Moore, her sister, Geraldine Ward, and one of their aunts who spoke with The Inquirer, but asked not to be identified or quoted. Edwards was told she was under no obligation to contact them.

She called all three before the week was over. They talked for hours. They called her cousin. They called her niece. They called her family.

“The way they embraced me was unbelievable,” Edwards said. “I was a stranger to them, and now I’m family.”

The following Monday, Edwards’ story also ran in The Inquirer’s sister publication, the Daily News, where it was read by someone else with a connection to her story.

From the beginning, one of the people Edwards wanted to meet most was James Drain, the teen boy who first heard her cries and went to get help. She credits him and Rogers with saving her life.

But through the course of reporting her first story, The Inquirer discovered Drain died in 1997. Edwards was heartbroken by the news.

Drain’s daughter, LaKeisha Heller, had never heard the story of how her father once found an abandoned baby at her grandmother’s house. As she read Edwards story in the Daily News, the day after a particularly tough Father’s Day for her this year, she broke down crying. Then, she reached out to connect with Edwards too.

“I’m just shocked that my dad was a part of something as a kid that I didn’t know about and because of him she’s here,” Heller, 45, of West Philly, said. “I’m so grateful to hear that.”

Edwards was, again, overwhelmed.

“I am literally gasping for air! This is bigger than I could have imagined! Unbelievable!” she said, as she burst into tears. “I’m not going to have any eyeballs left. When people say they cry their eyeballs out I’m starting to think that’s an actual thing. I’m just so shocked!”

The first time Heller and Edwards connected on the phone they cried together for 45 minutes, then talked for hours.

“It was like talking to him,” Edwards said. “Me and LaKeisha, she is going to be my sister for life.”

‘This is really happening’

Over the following weeks, Edwards began having regular phone conversations with Ward-Moore, her sister, Geraldine Ward, and their aunt.

On July 10, Geraldine Ward, who lives in Columbia, Md., just 20 minutes away from Edwards, held a family barbecue at her home so Edwards could meet the family in person, and they could meet her.

Edwards was so nervous she called Heller for advice.

“I was happy for her but she was really scared to go meet them,” Heller said. “I told her just go ahead and don’t be scared, and if it gets too much to handle, bounce your booty out of there.”

The first person to greet Edwards with a big hug when she arrived was the man who would eventually prove to be her half-brother. The two talk or text every day now, and family members said he’s thrilled to have a sibling after being an only child. He did not return multiple requests to be interviewed for this story and did not appear at the gathering at the site this month.

Back at the family barbecue in July, Edwards said she felt warmly welcomed but still found herself so nervous that the water in her glass almost spilled out because her hands were shaking so much. Eventually, she was able to compose herself and the family presented her with gifts, including balloons and a desk lamp.

“We just want to love on her and welcome her and show her that we’re not going to give up and throw her away. I wish we could turn back the clock where this would have never went that way,” Geraldine Ward said. “I’m just glad she lived to tell her story. God kept her here for a reason. It was to tell her story. That’s why it’s coming out now.”

Angelle Richardson, a family therapist and assistant professor of community and trauma counseling at Thomas Jefferson University who specializes in adoption and was adopted herself, said the warm and loving reception Edwards has received from her birth family is “wonderful.”

“There’s this narrative that adoptees tell themselves around why was I given away or abandoned, so when the birth family is so welcoming, it really helps counteract whatever that narrative is,” Richardson said. “It counteracts all those things for 53 years that she may have been telling herself about what the reasons were why she couldn’t be with them.”

A month later, when DNA tests results confirmed Edwards’ relationship to the family, “It was like a sigh of relief,” she said.

“I just started screaming ‘Oh my God!’ I texted Shelly right away. I said ‘COUSIN’ with ten exclamation points,” Edwards said. “Then, it hit me. This is really happening. And I was dumbfounded.”

Ward-Moore said she hasn’t been this excited about anything since she was a little kid running downstairs to the tree on Christmas morning.

“I immediately called everybody and I said ‘DNA is back! DNA is back! It’s official,’” she said. “It just feels like this was meant to happen. It’s amazing to me. It’s an amazing time in my life. And I’m excited every day whenever I think about Cheryl.”

As for Edwards, the void of emptiness and loss she felt when this year started that compelled her to enter grief therapy is quickly being replenished with love.

“All of this is so big, so huge. I have family all over the place. I’ll never be lonely ever again in my life,” she said. “I just feel like I can take on the world now because there are a whole lot of other people out there to love me and I can love on them.”

‘You can breathe’

While Edwards has received more answers this year than she ever hoped for, many questions still remain. Nobody in the family knows why she was abandoned at birth, or who her biological father may be.

“I never even thought about him, not in a negative way, I just never said ‘OK, now that I found out who the mother is now let me find who the father is,’ ” Edwards said. “Nobody in the family knows.”

Richardson said Edwards’ response isn’t unusual, especially for female adoptees.

“Most adoptees search for mothers rather than fathers. When you think about life events, like giving birth, biological mothers are kind of front and center,” she said. “And sometimes the circumstances don’t lend themselves to knowing or finding out who the biological father was.”

Despite the unknowns, Edwards said she’s happy her birth mother is alive and she hopes she’ll be able to meet her one day. She’d like to read her a letter she wrote her, one her counselor recommended she write before she publicly shared her story or even knew who her mother might be.

The letter begins with: “Dear biological mom,” and closes with “God bless you, until next time. Your daughter, Cheryl Denise Edwards.”

“And I’d like to hug her, just to say, ‘It’s OK, I’m fine. I’ve been fine this entire time. And you can breathe,’ ” Edwards said. “Because I can only imagine what that has been like for her over the years. Although I don’t know the circumstances as to why things occurred like they did, as a mother who had to make a choice, I know it was difficult and painful. It had to be.”