For years, tucked away in the basement in her home just outside of Fort Calhoun, Jody Koziol stored containers of old family photos and other documents.
Over the years, she had been the one to take them after relatives had passed away, and one by one, they were put away.
Her family's history was something that had always interested Jody, but time wasn't on her side to do much research.
But, after a test during Christmas 2017, her desire to learn more about her family changed. Intrigued by a friend who had been researching her own family history, Jody ordered a DNA kit from Ancestry.com and, per the instructions, she put a saliva sample into a tube and mailed it off.
As she waited for the results, Jody expected there might be some surprises.
But, what happened next wasn't on her radar.
Jody received her DNA information in an email, where a pie chart showed her nationalities of Swedish, Irish, English and others. The email also contained information about other family members, some she knew and some she didn't. One of the boxes contained a leaf, which designated a hint, so she clicked on it to get more information, including an email for a woman who could unlock a family tree for Jody.
“I sent an email said, 'We might be related,'” Jody recalled.
After exchanging emails with the person, and gathering more information, Jody found others whom she might be related to and, eventually she began an email conversation with two women.
Letting them she know she had family photos, she began scanning and exchanging them via email last fall.
A tedious and time-consuming process, Jody thought of an easier way for the women to exchange information.
“I asked the ladies where they lived because I thought I could just pick a weekend and bring my box of stuff out to them,” Jody said.
Turns out, Jody wouldn't have to travel far.
Rennea Brown, one of the women she had been corresponding with, lived just 10 minutes away — in Fort Calhoun. Jody suspected she and Rennea's husband, Lew, were related, possibly cousins.
It was news that caught both of them by surprise. Both recalled saying “Oh my goodness” upon realizing they were living in the same area.
“When we figured out I was close, I came running over here with my box,” Jody said last week as she and Browns recalled the day of her first visit in November.
After going through some of her photos, she came upon one that Lew and Rennea recognized.
“I went over to my box and found a photo he had in his box,” Rennea said.
Without Jody seeing it, Rennea gave the photo to Lew and, at the same time, he and Jody held up their photos revealing they had the same photo. One of the people in the photo was Jody's grandmother, Edna Kelley, who was a cousin of Lew's grandfather.
It was the "aha" moment they both needed, Jody said.
“That's when it hit me,” Jody said. “We were related.”
At that moment, the new family members knew that had to mark the occasion with a toast.
“She (Rennea) said 'Get the best bottle of wine, we are going to celebrate,'” Jody said.
Not only did they celebrate the finding of a cousin, but it turned out that Jody's father's side of the family — the Rapps — were the missing link Rennea and Lew had spent 10 years looking for as they researched their family history.
The whole scenario is still mind-boggling for Jody and the Browns.
“It's kind of unbelievable because she has other history about her dad,” Rennea said. “We knew there were Rapps (in the family).”
Meeting Lew and Rennea has opened up a whole new world for Jody. During her visit, she learned that the house the Browns live in has been in the family for 150 years and that relatives on her Green side of the family are buried in the Fort Calhoun Cemetery.
“I drive by that cemetery every day,” Jody said, recalling that her first visit after learning about her family members was emotional for her.
As she learns more about her new-found family, she's realizing it's as if something or someone drew her and her late husband, Dan, to the Fort Calhoun area 40 years ago.
Little bits of information she's picked up a long the way make it feel like fate. For example, the Green family started Green School, which would eventually be worked into Fort Calhoun Community Schools, where her grandchildren now attend.
She also learned, like her, a member of the Green family loved horses. Jody and her daughter run an equine therapy center called “Hold Your Horses.”
In the case of the Browns, they attend St. John the Baptist Church in Fort Calhoun. Jody's late husband, Dan, helped build the rectory at the church.
“It's such a small world,” Jody said. “Something drew us to the family homestead.”
Jody and the Browns are somewhat surprised their paths hadn't crossed before, not for family reasons, but just because Fort Calhoun is a small community.
But, Lew said, it may be because he and Rennea have only lived in the area since 2007.
Jody said she comes from a small family, with just one sister, so it's been great to open the doors to family members she didn't know she had.
“I always wanted a big family,” she said.
Jody said she and the Browns have a lot more work to do to complete the family puzzle. But, they are having fun uncovering it all. Since discovering they are related, they have developed a close relationship, with Jody joking that they are stuck with her and also making a promise to Lew.
“If you need a kidney I got two, you can have one,” she said.
Jody has continued to uncover information in other parts of her family, including an ancestor that came over on the Mayflower with his wife and baby.
“I'm a pilgrim,” Jody said, laughing.
She also has an ancestor — Capt. Jabez Fitch — who fought and was captured by the British during the Revolutionary War. That connection could help her earn membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) group.
“I'm excited about the DAR,” she said.
Jody also plans on taking a trip to Germany to do more research on her family.
Having lost her grandparents at a young age, Jody said she didn't know much about them, except the stories she heard. She hopes through her research, she'll be able to learn more about her family and preserve that for her children and grandchildren.
“My grandkids love to hear about their great-grandpa and their great-uncle and their grandpa,” she said. “There are so many stories that you need to pass along.”