Twenty-six year old Khari Siegfried knew three things about her mother: her height, her hometown and the age she was when she gave her daughter up for adoption.
Siegfried, a 2013 Temple graduate and winner of Miss Pennsylvania United States 2014, said she understood from an early age that she was adopted. Born in Kansas City, Kan., Siegfried was put into foster care and adopted by her parents when she was six weeks old. Her mother was 16 years old when she gave birth to her.
“A lot of people asked if I searched for her, but it just never felt like the right time,” Siegfried said. “There had been many questions over the years…but I still never took the leap to go out and find her.”
Inspired by her parents and adoptive brother, Siegfried has been competing in pageants for the past 10 years with the platform of adoption advocacy. On her fundraising page for the Miss United States 2014 competition, Siegfried said she works with the Care Net National Pregnancy Center and local adoption agencies, helping those facing unplanned pregnancy and helping children waiting to be adopted.
While gown shopping in October 2013 for the Miss Pennsylvania pageant, Siegfried said she received an unexpected phone call from her mother. The adoption agency that handled Siegfried’s adoption 26 years ago had contacted her on behalf of her birth mother.
“They said that my birth mother was trying to get in contact with me and they asked if I would be willing to email or call her,” Siegfried said. “I said I would love to. It was just so surreal.”
Siegfried said she received her birth mother’s information and spent hours perfecting the letter she was about to send.
“I had to digest it all,” Siegfried said. “I just thought my whole life could change after I send this email. There was a lot going through my mind. It took a while to write it and send it. I remember I just kept checking my phone and checking my phone waiting for a response. When I finally got one, it was such a crazy moment.”
Siegfried said she discovered her birth mother was still living in Kansas and had been searching for her for six years to no avail, due in part to outdated information on file at the agency.
“When I left the hospital after I was born, my original name was Jessica Lynn Bailey,” Siegfried said. “After I was adopted, my name was changed to Khari. For years, my birth mother had been looking for someone named Jessica.”
“We used to live in St. Louis, Mo., so [the agency] had our old address and phone number as well,” she added. “I didn’t know that she was trying to find me.”
Siegfried said she found out through email that other members of her family were searching for her too.
“My mother married my birth father after I was born, which rarely happens, so that was awesome. They had been together for so many years and they had three kids after me,” Siegfried said. “I had this whole other family out there.”
Since Siegfried’s birth family had no idea she was living in Pennsylvania, they were also unaware Siegfried was competing for the Miss Pennsylvania title advocating adoption. They decided to fly up from Kansas the week of the pageant to meet in person and were able to watch Siegfried win the crown.
“It was just ironic that this year here I am competing and talking about adoption and this whole thing is going on behind the scenes,” Siegfried said. “There are just some times when you’re working towards a goal or a dream and you just hope that you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing. But at that point in time, I knew.”
Siegfried went on to compete in the Miss United States 2014 pageant this month where she placed fourth runner-up for the title. Siegfried said her birth family was unable to attend, but she is currently planning a trip to Kansas to visit them.
Siegfried said she has also grown closer to her newfound brother Josh, who is planning to move to Pennsylvania. The two are hoping to find an apartment together.
“Maybe we could create a reality show together,” Siegfried said, laughing. “We clicked instantly – it’s kind of weird [how family works].”
Siegfried is working to find young women to compete in next year’s Miss Pennsylvania pageant and said she hopes they find a platform they believe in as much as she believes in hers.
“I want to tell them my personal story and show them it’s not all about the glitz and the glamour – there’s a lot more to it than that,” Siegfried said. “I’ve gotten a lot of responses from people that are adopted or have adopted children since I won. I never thought my story would be that interesting, but I love that people are taking it positively.”
Jessica Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.