Kayla Tovo paced next to her parked car, not sure what to expect.
“Mom, what are you doing?” her little boy called out the window.
“Give me a minute,” she answered.
A decade ago, Tovo manned a machine gun for the Army in Afghanistan. Yet the meeting she was about to go to, at a park in Huntington Beach, spooked her.
On the drive over she’d stopped to buy a yellow rose.
A yellow rose means friendship. A yellow rose means starting over.
A yellow rose would express three words to someone she’d be meeting for the first time – the woman who, 27 years earlier, abandoned her next to a trash bin behind a grocery store.
“I forgive you.”
The Anaheim Police gave her a name: Baby Alpha Beta.
She was found at 8 a.m. on a Saturday a few days before Thanksgiving in 1987. A janitor was dumping trash at an Anaheim Alpha Beta when he spotted the infant inside a milk crate next to a garbage bin.
She was, at most, a few hours old. Blood from her birth still stained her skin. A segment of umbilical cord still clung to her belly.
Somebody had wrapped her in a worn yellow blanket, but her head, hands and feet stuck out in the chilly air.
A clerk knelt next to the crate and tried to warm the infant, cupping the tiny hands in her own. Another called the police.
Ron Valverde, one of the responding officers, had seen a lot to that point in his 10 years with the Anaheim Police Department. But he never forgot the sight of that baby, blue from cold.
“That was my first and only call like that,” says Valverde, now retired after more than 20 years on the force. “It was troublesome.”
Back then, there was no Safe Haven law that allowed a person to relinquish an unwanted child at a fire department or some other protected place without worry of criminal punishment.
Back then, infants were left in parking lots and public restrooms.
Valverde remembers moving Baby Alpha Beta to the patrol car and turning up the heater while they waited for paramedics.
The baby cried softly.
Once at the hospital, doctors said she was suffering from hypothermia but was otherwise healthy – born full term and weighing 7 pounds, 9 ounces.
Later, a worried Valverde went to the hospital to check on the baby. He saw her in an incubator; no longer blue but, instead, bright pink.
“She was a cute little thing.”
Given her dark eyes and hair, and the fact that she was found in a Latino neighborhood, authorities took out ads in Spanish-language newspapers looking for the mother. No one came forward.
In February ’88, detectives suspended the search.
By then, Baby Alpha Beta was destined for a loving home.
SENT BY ANGELS
The story in her Sunday paper made Sheri Tovo jump from the breakfast table. Stripped across the bottom of the Orange County Register was this headline:
“Newborn girl found abandoned behind Anaheim grocery.”
Sheri Tovo had some experience with abandoned children.
Five years earlier she and her first husband had adopted a baby boy after seeing his photo in a Sunday’s Child feature in the paper. That baby, Michael, was left in a parking lot and nearly run over.
Sheri Tovo also fostered two children who later were reunified with their birth mothers. And she was in the process of adopting a second boy, Anthony, when she read about Baby Alpha Beta.
She wanted a daughter badly.
“I said ‘This is my girl!’” recalls Sheri Tovo.
Later that day, she buttonholed social workers at an adoption fair. Soon, she was making weekly calls to Orangewood Children’s Home, the county shelter for abused and abandoned youngsters, to inquire about Baby Alpha Beta.
“I hounded those poor social workers.”
It was Christmastime and, by then, the staff was calling her Baby Noel.
Visits began when the baby turned two months old. Sheri Tovo, a nurse, went daily to rock and feed and sing lullabies.
While changing a diaper, she saw what she took to be a sign that the baby was meant to be her daughter: A birthmark on the baby’s backside looked like her own, she says, only smaller.
“That was the moment I knew she was dropped here by angels for me.”
A NEW NAME
On Feb. 2, 1988, Sheri Tovo brought her daughter home.
By this time, the court had given Baby Alpha Beta a legal name. Mindful of where she had been found and the belief that she was Hispanic, a judge named her Anna Brianna Rodriguez.
Sheri Tovo renamed her again, Kayla Rochelle, when the adoption was finalized in May 1989.
Along with her two adoptive brothers, Kayla Tovo had a happy upbringing in Orange. When Sheri Tovo divorced and remarried a few years later, Kayla Tovo gained a stepfather and two step-siblings.
As a girl, she took dance and music lessons. There were birthday parties and summer vacations. She was a good athlete, twice making the all-star softball team. And at Villa Park High, she ran cross-country and played tuba in the marching band.
She dreamed of becoming a police K-9 officer. She practiced by training the family dogs.
“We had a perfect life,” Kayla Tovo says. “I grew up really loved and spoiled.”
She knew at a young age that she was adopted, but Sheri Tovo didn’t provide any details about her birth until she showed a 13-year-old Kayla the newspaper story about Baby Alpha Beta.
“That’s crazy,” Kayla Tovo remembers thinking.
angry at the woman who abandoned her.
“How could she leave me?”
For awhile, she thought that if she ever met whoever it was, she might spit on her.
Later, she turned to a new possibility: “Maybe she did the best thing for me. She couldn’t take care of me (but) left me where I would be found.
“A lot of babies are left inside dumpsters. She didn’t do that.”
THE SEARCH BEGINS
She signed up for the Army at 17 and, two years later, was in Afghanistan. Within months, in 2007, an explosive device struck her patrol truck.
She suffered a traumatic brain injury, and the Army gave her a medical retirement at 19. She lives with memory loss and post-traumatic stress disorder. She feels some unease in crowds and when dealing with strangers. Two service dogs she trained, Ozzie and Gunner, help to calm her.
Her own son, who just turned 6, is the center of Kayla Tovo’s world. Her marriage to his father only lasted three months; she takes care of her boy as a single mom.
She volunteers at his school and coaches his baseball team.
Her son’s birth made her wonder again about her own origins. Initially, her interest was practical; she wondered if there was anything she’d need to know for medical reasons.
But she waited until last year to begin searching. And before she did anything, she asked Sheri Tovo for permission. She didn’t want to hurt her feelings.
“She’s my mom,” Kayla Tovo says of the woman who took care of her when she first returned from Afghanistan. “She’s always going to be my mom.”
Sheri Tovo gave her OK, because she didn’t think her daughter would find anything. For decades, the woman hadn’t come forward; why would she after what she did?
“I have trouble forgiving that,” Sheri Tovo says, “even now.”
Kayla Tovo didn’t know where to start.
So she shared her birth story on social media, and explained to her online friends that she was looking for her birth mother.
“I said ‘Help me find her, Facebook.’”
A friend of a friend saw the post and contacted someone in a unique position to help: CeCe Moore, a genetic genealogist who does the DNA research for the popular PBS series “Finding Your Roots” with Henry Louis Gates Jr. and also consults on “Genealogy Roadshow.”
Moore lives in San Clemente and has a son a few years older than Kayla Tovo’s. She has a special place in her heart for foundlings like Kayla Tovo who have nothing to go on.
“DNA,” Moore says, “was the only way to solve this.”
Moore had a lead six months after Tovo mailed off a $100 test kit from the saliva-based DNA service 23andMe.
Luck played a big part: Someone in the 23andMe database came up as a 7 percent DNA match to Kayla Tovo. It would turn out to be a distant cousin doing genealogy.
The cousin encouraged other family members to get tested. Another Orange County genealogist, Laurie L. Pratt, built a family tree for Kayla Tovo. That helped narrow the search for her birth mother to the paternal aunt of the cousin.
Moore and Pratt determined that the aunt had to be Kayla Tovo’s maternal grandmother. She was not Latino; but she had two daughters.
“One is institutionalized with cerebral palsy,” Moore says.
“The other turned out to be the mother.”
Kayla Tovo’s birth mother never told her family about the pregnancy, the birth or the abandonment.
The DNA evidence forced her to reveal her secret last October.
She still lives in Orange County, but did not want to talk to the Register for this story. Moore says her birth father died years ago in a high-speed police chase.
Kayla Tovo declines to give their names, and also asked to keep her son’s name private. But she shared the contents of an email that still brings tears to her eyes when she reads it out loud.
This is the story that email told:
Her birth mother was in her 20s, homeless and living in her car with two young sons. Desperate at the end of her pregnancy with this third child, she left her boys with a friend and parked her car in an empty lot to give birth.
She delivered the baby, alone, around 5 a.m. on Nov. 21, 1987.
Afterward, she drove the streets until she saw people working at the Alpha Beta. She left the baby where she figured someone would find her, by that trash bin. An hour or so later, when she came back to check, the baby was gone.
Kayla Tovo asked her, “If I was still there would you have taken me?”
The answer: “Yes.”
When they finally met in person at the park in Huntington Beach, Kayla Tovo gave the woman who abandoned her the yellow rose.
But she had already expressed her feelings in an email.
“I don’t want you to be mad or embarrassed or ashamed,” Kayla Tovo wrote. “I love you for giving me life.”
The reply: “I know you forgive me, but I have to forgive myself.”
Kayla Tovo has also met a brother and other relatives she didn’t know she had. Last month, she invited them all to her son’s birthday party.
She says she is grateful for everything that happened to Baby Alpha Beta. Had she not been abandoned, she reasons, she would not have ended up with Sheri Tovo.
“I had an incredible life growing up,” Kayla Tovo says.
But now, she adds, “I feel complete.”
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