Decades ago, patrons of an Allentown, Pennsylvania, Burger King had their evenings upended when they heard a strange sound coming from the restroom: a baby wailing. But when they went to look, there was baby all alone, with no parent in sight.
For 30 years, she wondered about her true parentage. But when all else failed, she had to make a drastic move to finally get some honest answers about where she came from.
On September 15th, 1986, the fryers sizzled, the drive-thru speaker barked, and the kids got their happy meals at the Allentown, Pennsylvania Burger King. Workers and satisfied customers thought it a typical afternoon — until they heard shrieks in the bathroom.
Only a baby, they knew, could produce those piercing wails. The Burger King crowd politely minded their business, thinking, “ugh, that parent’s got their hands full with a fussy child.” But as the clock ticked, the screams never quelled.
The manager on duty went to investigate. From the moment he opened the door, the cries, no longer muffled, filled the restaurant. He knew something was terribly wrong.
Wrapped in a sweater, the red-faced baby was lying on the floor beneath the sink. With no sign of a parent or responsible guardian, the manager realized the child was abandoned. Judging by her looks, she was just a few hours old.
With the newborn’s health at risk, Burger King’s staff promptly called an ambulance. EMTs arrived and confirmed the manager’s suspicions: the baby girl was maybe 3 hours old and, thankfully, healthy. This was only a small comfort to onlookers, who all felt tremendous sorrow for the baby.
Allentown Police arrived on scene to attempt tracking down the person responsible for abandoning the baby. Realistically, there wasn’t much to go on. One officer commented, “Right now, we’re the only thing this kid’s got in terms of a family.”
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Police turned to the public, pleading for someone to turn themselves in. An EMT cuddling the rosy-cheeked infant voiced what a lot of responders were thinking, “I’m sure whoever gave her up is having a very hard time right now.”
The “Burger King Baby” was the hot oneliner on all the local news stations. The police department hoped the continuous press coverage would trigger a guilty conscious. Still, no one came forward.
After exhausting all investigative resources — fingerprinting, interviews — and the baby remained parentless. They moved to put the little girl up for adoption. Several months after her chaotic entry to the world, the baby went to her first home.
Brenda and Carl Hollis learned of the abandoned baby in the bathroom from news reports. The couple was eager for a child of their own, so they adopted the “Burger King Baby” and finally gave her an actual name — Katheryn.
Brenda Hollis / Facebook
So it was 12 years of a normal suburban childhood — dance class, sleepovers, homework at the kitchen table — until the Hollises decided it was time to tell Katheryn the truth. She’d known she was adopted but not the painful details of her abandonment.
When words failed them, Brenda and Carl showed Katheryn an album of press clippings. Over the years, Katheryn wore the pages from use. “I would never want to replace my adopted family,” she said, “but being adopted, a part of you is missing and unless you’ve been adopted, you really just don’t understand that.”
But Katheryn carried on with life. After she graduated high school, she entered the medical field as an EMT ambulance driver, possibly a call to duty after the care she’d received in her most helpless time of need.
At 27, the now-married adult with her own child understood the challenge of bringing life into the world. Holding and mothering her own baby took the ever-present curiosity about her birth parents from a small flame into an all-consuming blaze.
Where does a regular person turn when they want to reach the masses? Facebook, of course. Katheryn hoped her snappy nickname would make people click the share button. So, she grabbed her markers, jotted down her unique story, and trusted the internet to come through.
Her photo, linked to a page titled Katheryn “Burger King Baby Deprill” quickly caught traction online. In the span of 2 weeks, 30,000 people shared her post. The power of social media circulation paid off, and Katheryn got the message she’d waited 27 years for.
Prepared for a hard-to-swallow serving of neglect, Katheryn was stunned by the story in her inbox. A woman named Cathy Pochek reached out, and she admitted she was her biological mother that left her in the public bathroom.
The message detailed how guilt ridden Cathy was for the ultimate act of abdication, but it was done out of the sheer desperation of a traumatized child. Cathy was 16 at the time, and she’d gotten pregnant as the result of a rape.
Her assault took place on a family vacation abroad. Gutted and wracked with shame, Cathy never confided in anyone, let alone her family, about the attack. When she returned to the States and discovered her pregnancy, she couldn’t handle the reality.
In Cathy’s teenage eyes, leaving her baby in a public space, where she surely would be found, was the only way out of her predicament. After giving birth to her daughter alone in her bedroom, she kissed her forehead and left her in the Burger King.
Katheryn sympathized. She thought of her own son, and how easy it is to make a mistake on the heels of trauma. Cathy had acted out of fear, but now they had a chance to move forward.
Following an initial meeting, Katheryn, Cathy, and Brenda were invited to share their story on NBC’s TODAY. For all three women, it was a major step towards healing and forging a new relationship, but they also discovered some funny family coincidences.
For starters, they share the same name. Cathy’s full name is Catherine Ann, and Brenda unknowingly named her daughter Katheryn Ann. Both women drive the exact same car, down to the color. Cathy worked as an EMT, just like Katheryn.
Besides their many mother-daughter likenesses, Cathy and Katheryn shared another strange connection. Cathy babysat a little boy who grew up to be Katheryn’s husband. In a small way, the universe brushed them past one another.
Luckily, the newly acquainted mother and daughter have the rest of their lives to unravel all the ways they were entwined. Katheryn found unexpected answers, and she’s one of many abandoned children who discovered their backgrounds were more complicated than they ever imagined.
For instance, Jen Chervin a 45-year-old, married teacher and resident of Beaverton, Oregon, thought her life was ordinary. But as a baby, she was found on December 18, 1971, abandoned on the steps of California’s Fremont Hospital.
“It was a stormy night, and I was wrapped in two blankets,” she said in a 2015 interview. Jen knew she was adopted, but growing up, she could only find information about her earliest days in the local newspapers.
For example, she knew that the nurses had heard her crying outside of the fire door as they happened to pass by on their rounds. Since this was just a week before Christmas, they decided to name her Holly Fremont. Unfortunately, they had no idea how she got there.
Moreover, police officers couldn’t find any identifying information about her birth parents. Luckily, Jen was promptly adopted by a couple who loved her deeply, and she grew up to teach math to children with autism. Clearly, she was quite well-adjusted, but she could never quite shake the questions surrounding her abandonment.
“Every year on my birthday at Christmastime I would wonder, ‘Is my mom thinking about me?’ Because I would think about her,” said Jen, who was 20 when she began to search for her biological parents herself.
The search went on for over 20 years, and by 2014, Jen started using social media to find some clues. Finally, she reached a turning point. “I had a woman reach out to me,” explained Jen. “She sent me a message, and she said, ‘Do you have a search angel working with you?'”
A “search angel” is a popular term for individuals who devote a great deal of their own time to helping others discover more about their family history. Jen decided to take the woman up on her offer right away.
“She said, ‘Have you tried DNA?’ And I thought, ‘What do you mean, DNA?'” Jen explained. Taking her search angel’s advice, Jen sent samples to two different companies that specialize in DNA testing.
“I had hundreds of DNA cousins, hundreds,” Jen said of her discovery after her test results came back. “And I’m looking at this page, and it’s people I’m related to, and that was surreal to me.” Once one of these cousins decided to help, Jen’s search accelerated.
The more family members Jen learned about, the more of them were willing to have their DNA tested. Finally, she found an uncle, and when he agreed to a DNA test, so did all seven of his brothers. Not long after that, Jen believed she had found her birth father!
That was good news, but what came next was unimaginably difficult: Jen had to call her biological father and reveal to him her identity. “He was shocked and tongue-tied,” said Jen. That wasn’t all, though. As it turned out, her father had some shocking news for her, too…
“They’re still married to the same individuals they were married to at the time, so [evidently] I’m a product of an affair,” said Jen. Because she was a reminder of his infidelity, he refused to meet her. That was hard to hear, but he did give her a clue as to who her birth mother was. Ultimately, it took more DNA testing, though… and another awkward call for her to find her mom.
Then, the moment arrived: she found her. “All the signs lead to you,” Jen recalled saying to her biological mother, who initially vehemently denied what Jen (who was essentially a stranger) was telling her. “She said to me, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.'”
“I don’t want to hurt you, I just want answers,” Jen remembered telling the woman over the phone. “That’s when she broke down and started crying, and she said, ‘I’m so sorry, and I thought about you every day.'”
Finally, the woman revealed the truth. Her husband had been serving in Vietnam while she temporarily relocated to North Carolina to stay with her family. That’s where the affair with Jen’s father started. Once she returned to her California home, she gave birth to Jen on her couch.
During this same conversation, Jen learned other things about her past, including the fact that her birthday was, indeed, the exact same day that she was found at the hospital: December 18. She also learned that she had some half-brothers and sisters. Most surprisingly, perhaps, was that she learned about the details of her abandonment.
“[After my mom gave birth to me] she said she held me for a couple of hours,” Jen recalled. “And then she woke up her daughters and put them in the back of the car and took me to the hospital and dropped me off.” Her birth mother was confident that the baby would be safe there.
As uncomfortable as the conversation may have been, Jen claimed that her birth mother was happy to hear from her. It brought up another challenge, though: her biological mother’s family may never find out that she exists, as she was the product of an extramarital affair.
“I know she was shocked that I found her,” explained Jen. “One of the first things she said was, ‘You can’t be a part of my family,’ and she said it panicked her, and I said, ‘I know, it’s okay.'” Even so, Jen hopes that one day she can meet her birth mother in person.
“She said she had a lot of guilt and shame that she’s been carrying all these years,” Jen continued. “I told her she needed to let that go.” Proving that their connection was still being rebuilt, Jen received her first Christmas present from her biological mother in 2015: a necklace with a note that read, “The cross is a reminder that you are always in my heart.” Jen is also happy to have closure. “It’s my mystery solved,” she said.