Brother and sister Keith DuPree and Gina Pearson have few memories of the short time they lived together as children.
With a neglectful, alcoholic mother, Keith, now 23, and Gina, 24, were separated for most of their lives in different foster homes. By 2006, each had been adopted by different families.
They had lost touch until the fall of 2011, when the affable Gina, now 24, reached out to her brother on Facebook. At that time, they hadn’t lived together for seven years, since a three-month stint in a foster home.
“To me it was worth a shot,” she says of reconnecting with Keith, now 23 and a senior majoring in environmental and business economics.
When the pair spotted each other before the performance, “we ran to each other and gave each other a hug and didn’t let go.”
Yet the pair didn’t talk much after that, and it wasn’t until Gina transferred to the Rutgers-New Brunswick campus in 2012 that their bond began to develop. Since then the pair have been inseparable as they built a relationship the envy of many siblings.
“I had had to live with the idea that you create your own family,” Keith says. “There is something different about having someone who is essentially a part of you, to know that no matter what, this other you will be there is absolutely amazing. It is so comforting.”
“We’re best friends,” says Gina, now earning a master’s degree in social work at Rutgers-New Brunswick while working full time for the New Jersey foster care system writing policy.
Several times a day she talks and texts with Keith who lives 10 minutes away. “We literally talk about everything, from dreams and aspirations to fears and failures.
“It’s really cool to have that connection and know if I call him in the middle of the night and I need him, he’ll come and he knows I will do the same.”
It is a bond they will never take for granted.
“For anyone who has siblings,” says Keith, “imagine for one day that person just wasn’t there, and all you want is to have that person back in your life, and the next day you get that person back. Imagine how it feels.
“It felt horrible but now it feels better than ever.”
A Rough Childhood
Their connection is remarkable, considering the difficult paths their lives have taken.
Gina was a month and two days old when allegations of neglect led the state to remove her and her two toddler siblings from their mother and placed them in foster care.
“We know in our file was that she was drinking through the night,” Gina says.
About three years later, Gina and her older siblings were returned to their mother in Runnemede, New Jersey. By then, her mother had had another child – Keith. Their father was never in the picture, says Gina, due to “frequent incarcerations.”
Gina and Keith lived together with their mom for four years, from 1994 to 1997. They have little memory of that time.
“Running in the street,” Gina says, as she and Keith begin laughing, their spirited chucking identical.
“We’re laughing because we read our case file together and we saw that when we were very young we were found wandering the streets multiple times, when we were 5 and 4, stuff like that,” she says. “I know I had these siblings and cousins but I try to forget it, I guess.”
By 2001, their parents’ rights were terminated due to allegations of neglect. But by then, Keith had already been placed in foster care, and the rest of the siblings had re-entered the foster system.
Over the unfolding years, Keith and Gina lived together only a few months, in two different foster homes. Also during this time, their two older siblings disappeared from their lives.
In 2005, when he was 13, Keith was adopted by an elderly woman in Vineland, New Jersey with biological children who were 40-plus.
“I felt stable and I appreciated them,” Keith says. “They helped me out in a lot of ways.”
Gina, who estimates she had 30 different placements, briefly saw her brother at his adoption party in 2005.
“It was so awkward and different to see my brother with another family,” she says. “To see him happy was amazing but it was so weird. What was normal was that we should have been living together.”
In 2006, a woman from Haddon Township with a 10-year-old adopted Gina. (“We are white and black,” says Gina of her and her brother’s racial composition.) Still, Gina never found a sense of family.
“My biological family and my adoptive family ended up not being forever families,” Gina says. “To see two families fail before my eyes is the hardest thing I’ve gone through. You think, ‘Was it me? Am I doing something wrong?’ The concept of family has been so challenging to me.”
During their time apart, Gina and Keith never spoke but thought of each other.
“One of my coping mechanism was to not think about what happened or anything that hurt me,” Keith says. “But there are instances that you can’t help but think about the past and I often found myself thinking where they are and what are they doing or if they are in New Jersey.”
Gina, meanwhile, thought of Keith “all time.”
“He is able to not think about things and I am an overthinker,” she says. “When I was lying in bed I was like, ‘I wonder how my brother is, I wonder how his day went.’ ”
After their reunification in 2011, the pair again went their separate ways. They spoke, but not regularly and not with any depth.
Gina was struggling at Rutgers-Camden, and transferred to Rutgers-New Brunswick in 2012. “I asked him if he wanted to meet me in the dining hall,” says Gina. She discovered a kindred spirit, and not only in looks and mannerisms.
During the summer of 2012 while living together on the Rutgers campus and participating in program related to foster care, the pair went food shopping.
While walking down the cereal aisle, “we grabbed the same cereal, looked at each other and said ‘Waffle Crisps’ and we were so excited,” she says. “I didn’t know he liked them and I wanted some and he wanted some.”
Adds Keith, laughing: “It was amazing how it happened.”
“It took about a year to fully build trust in each other and tell each other everything,” says Gina. “And that is when I found family and that sense of security, that sense of stability, that sense of comfort.
“And when I found that I began to thrive,” she continues, “because I had someone I knew who was there for me. I can talk to him about anything.”
The siblings shared an apartment last year from October until May. Gina now lives on the main Rutgers campus in New Brunswick while Keith is in nearby Piscataway, on another campus.
“I’ve never met a more understanding person,” Keith says. “It’s incredible how understanding and passionate she is, and how much she cares about other people, even after the life we lived.”