By Rick Ritter

BALTIMORE (WJZ) — During one of the most trying years, family has been more important than ever.

Having someone to lean on during this time has made us all realize just how special our loved ones really are.

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Imagine having a loved one, but never knowing them, even though they lived in the same city. Maybe you even passed them on the street or had coffee in the same shop, without even knowing. It sounds a little far-fetched.

For a pair of Baltimore women though, they went from complete strangers, to suddenly sisters.

The word sister can have so many different meanings: a best friend, someone who makes you giddy, someone you can lean on or who brings out the best in you. For many though, it’s someone you can’t live without. For two sisters in Baltimore, living without has been their reality.

“It definitely doesn’t feel like we haven’t known each other for all these years,” said Sierra Mason, of West Baltimore.

Thirty-five years to be exact.

Mason and Kimberly Lagree Saleh were complete strangers just months ago but a 23andMe DNA genetic test, changed their lives forever.

“I can say it’s been a roller coaster ride for me mentally & emotionally,” says Mason.

For Sierra, it was back in 2019 when she took the popular test seen in ads and commercials, looking for some clarity on her family’s background.

“I wanted to know my ancestry, but I never expected to find anyone,” said Mason. “I would get matching relatives that were second, third, fourth cousins but nothing that would make me pause and say who is this?”

That all changed just a few months ago in March.

“One day I received an email saying you have a DNA matching relative and I thought ‘oh, it’s just another second or third cousin.’ A message popped up and it read hi, I think we’re sisters” said Mason. “I’m like wait a minute, what?”

Rick Ritter: At that point, what were the emotions like running through you, when you get that email? Did you think it was fake?

“My heart basically kind of dropped and I was in shock,” said Mason. “I couldn’t speak for a moment. I was just staring at this email. I closed it out, went back in and it was still there.”

That message was from Kimberly, who took her test more than a year later, living just fifteen minutes away on the other side of the city, in Mount Vernon.

“I really wanted to know my ancestors, specifically in Africa,” said Saleh. “I saw the results had this thing called a family tree, showing you your closest relatives and distant ones. I noticed it said sister and I’m like, sister?”

Ritter: Your parents never mentioned that you may have a sister out there that you didn’t know?

“They say papa was a rolling stone (laughs) so I wasn’t surprised in that sense,” said Saleh. “I was just wondering who was she and what was she going to think? We both weren’t sure what parent was the connecting piece. We didn’t have answers so now we’re wondering who is the daddy, like one of those paternity shows and that was very emotional because, for one of us, it meant that the life we knew, wasn’t true.”

That reality left Sierra with mixed emotions, revealing the man she knew as her dad wasn’t her biological father.

“I was extremely happy to know I have a father who’s here and I can find out more about myself and my connection to the family, but there was still an emotional loss for me, for the father I had known,” said Mason.

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But despite those mixed emotions, the connection between these two sisters was instant and pure.

“We decided to first get lunch and when I saw her, we hugged. I hugged her kids, her husband was there and we sat down and had lunch. It felt like we already knew each other our whole lives, even though we missed three decades plus,” said Saleh.

One lunch turned into speaking every day and from the outside, you wouldn’t know they’ve spent decades apart. From the smiles and giggles to similarities of interests, to nearly giving their daughters the same name, these two sisters are in sync.

“My daughter’s name is Ariana,” said Sierra.

“And you almost named your daughter Ariana?” Rick asked Kimberly.

“That was the name we had picked out,” said Saleh. “I changed it literally the day before she was born. They share a nickname, Arie, because my daughter’s name is Arielle.”

“It’s kind of like a mirror back to yourself,” said Mason. “Things I didn’t know about myself or personality and I say wait a minute, she sounds just like me.”

Rick: Thirty-five, forty years without ever meeting each other, how do you make up for lost time?

“You don’t. You don’t make up for it. You make the commitment for getting to know each other now, being part of each other’s lives now,” said Saleh.

Rick: Do you get emotional thinking you wish you would’ve met each other twenty years ago and grew up with each other?

“Just really missing out on the relationship we could’ve had comes to mind,” said Mason. “But I try not to focus on the past and look forward to all we have going on in the future. I’ve been on this search for who am I & who I am connected to. To know all this time, it was so close, that’s life-changing for me,” said Mason.

In the midst of a year that’s brought turmoil and heartache for so many, these two sisters show there’s still plenty of good stories out there and plenty to smile about. Perhaps, warming our hearts when we all need it most.

Rick: Is there anything you want to say to each other, that maybe you haven’t had a chance to say yet?

“I just want you to know that you are absolutely beautiful, wonderful, smart, and talented,” Saleh said to Mason. “Whatever has led both of us to this moment, good and the bad, take all of it. Take life by the horns, just like we did with the 23andMe test.”

“I want you to know a lot of the strength I draw is from you,” Mason said to Saleh. “This has been such a rollercoaster ride and you’ve been my seat belt, holding me together.”

Sierra said she has met her biological dad, with Kimberly helping her along the way, introducing her to relatives little by little. Sierra added that the family she’s known from birth has been so supportive and promised that their love for her will never change, and she’ll always be family to them.

The two sisters said they keep in touch every day through a long text thread and are already planning trips to take together, now that many parts of the country are getting back to a sense of normalcy, following the height of the pandemic.

“After we did take the paternity and ID test to confirm, I took moments to assure her this isn’t just a one-time thing,” said Saleh. “My intentions are to remain close and to continue building our relationship as sisters. I’m not letting her go anywhere.”

As far as anyone out there who may be on the fence about taking a 23andMe test, Sierra encourages them to do it.

“Don’t let fear stop you from moving forward. Take that leap of faith” said Mason. “Take each moment as it comes. Life is too short to keep that unknown going in your head.”

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This story was originally posted on May 26, 2021.

Rick Ritter