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Donor Unknown

A Long Islander finds her donor siblings and donor father in a PBS documentary.

 

When Danielle Pagano was 13, her parents sat her down in their Seaford home and revealed a secret that would change her life forever: She was conceived via an anonymous sperm donation.

"I remember them saying, 'Your father's still your father. We needed someone's help to have a baby,' " recalled Pagano, whose story is chronicled in the upcoming PBS documentary Donor Unknown.

As the news sank in, though, she became angry. "I think anyone would be upset if they had this omission of truth," she said in a recent interview.

Pagano, now 22, couldn't stop wondering who her biological father was. When she was 16, she decided to satisfy her curiosity. She started with the Donor Sibling Registry.

A nonprofit founded in 2000 by Wendy Kramer of Nederland, Colo., the online registry helps unite siblings born from the same donor -- and in some cases unites children with their donor. More than 33,000 people nationwide have registered and at least 8,700 have found a sibling, according to Kramer.

But first Pagano would need a sperm donor number. She found the key to the puzzle inside a dusty trunk in her parents' home: the profile for Donor 150 from California Cryobank.

Pagano entered the information into the registry's database and, to her excitement, discovered she already had a registered sibling: JoEllen Marsh of Erie, Pa.

Pagano emailed her half sister in the summer of 2005. "We have the same donor," the Long Islander wrote. "I would like to talk to you if you'd like to talk to me."

Two excruciating weeks later she received a reply from Marsh, who had been on vacation. They began a flurry of emails and phone calls, and the day after Thanksgiving they met for the first time at Penn Station.

Around the same time, The New York Times published a story about Pagano and Marsh, and the article led to several more siblings coming forward. The following Easter they met in New York City.

"We had a lot of fun together," said Pagano, who grew up as an only child. One of her newly discovered half sisters was wearing an "Are You My Donor?" T-shirt.

They compared physical traits and tried to guess what their biological father looked like, based on details from his profile -- blue eyes, light brown hair, athletic.

It wasn't until Pagano was 17 that Donor 150 stepped forward. His name was Jeffrey Harrison, and he lived in an RV in Venice Beach, Calif., with his dogs and pet pigeon. He had recognized himself in the Times article and decided to reach out.

"It was really good to hear his voice," Pagano said of their first phone call. "I thought he had a similar sense of humor to mine -- kind of corny, stupid jokes. He seemed excited to get to know us."

After graduating from Plainedge High School, Pagano flew to California to meet Harrison. "I already knew he was going to be a pretty eccentric guy," she said. "I guess he was a little more eccentric than I had predicted, but he was really nice and sweet. He's very open about all sorts of things. I think that's something we have in common."

Today Pagano stays in touch with Harrison -- she calls him her "sperm donor papa" -- as well as her siblings. There are 13 known children of Donor 150, six of whom Pagano has met: five women and one man. She's especially close to Marsh, now 21, whom she regularly texts, calls and communicates with via Skype.

In Donor Unknown, director Jerry Rothwell interviews Pagano and her siblings about their quest to find their biological relatives, capturing their uncanny physical similarities. The film also follows Harrison, 54, who earns a modest living doing odd jobs.

Pagano's parents did not respond to calls for comment on their daughter's search or the documentary.

Pagano, who's been living in Seaford since graduating from SUNY Geneseo in May, sometimes gets skeptical reactions when she refers to her donor siblings as brothers and sisters.

"People will say, 'They're not really your siblings,' " she said.

Her reaction? "They're not the siblings I grew up with, but they're still my siblings, and we do care about each other."

"Donor Unknown" airs Oct. 23 at 11:30 p.m. on WNET/Ch. 13. The program premieres Oct. 26 on WLIW/21, airing at 8:30 a.m., 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.

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