PHILADELPHIA, PA — Ashley Thomas and Latoya Wimberly have been more like sisters than best friends for the past 17 years.
Their childhood photos were eerily similar — they shared the same high cheekbones. They had identical gaps in their front teeth. They had the same complexion. They liked the same music. The clothes hanging in their closets reflected the same taste in fashion. They even dated brothers.
Though they’d met each other once as children, their friendship clicked in 2004 when they were teenagers and attended a birthday party in Philadelphia for a mutual friend.
The bond, Wimberly told CNN, was “unbreakable.”
She and Thomas sometimes referred to themselves as sisters, as the best of best friends often do. They talk on the phone daily. Since that birthday party in 2004, they have been “stuck to each other like glue,” Thomas told CNN.
The sense there was something familial about their relationship began coming into sharper focus in January after an engagement party for Wimberly, 29. Her father, Kenneth Wimberly, was in some of the photos that Thomas, 31, shared on her Facebook page.
Thomas’s mother died 11 years ago, but her mom’s best friend recognized the photo of Kenneth Wimberly as that of someone they used to hang around with when they were young. More photos were exchanged. Kenneth Wimberly recognized Thomas’s mother as someone with whom he’d had a brief romantic relationship. There were more question than answers, so the two women and Kenneth Wimberly shared in the cost of a DNA test.
Fast forward to late February, when the two best friends learned they’re biological sisters.
“Chills went through my body,” Thomas told CNN of the moment Kenneth Wimberly confirmed on the phone that he was her biological father. “I couldn’t think. I couldn’t process it. I couldn’t even talk to them.”
She had known since she was 15 that the man who raised her wasn’t her biological father, but her mother, who died 11 years ago, had never told her who her dad might be.
Though Latoya Wimberly had never met Thomas’s family, Thomas knew the Wimberlys well. She was invited to family celebrations and Kenneth Wimberly even took a fatherly interest in Thomas, including her in the reference when he talked about “my girls,” not realizing the genetic accuracy of his statement.
Latoya Wimberly told CNN her best friend was “extremely close to my entire family on both sides. If my father is taking me out, Ashley’s coming with me. If someone asks, ‘Who are those girls?’ he says, ‘Those are my girls.’ If she has a car problem or any kind of issue, she always goes to my dad. But somehow our families never met.”
“Big Kenny was like my dad,” Thomas said.”He was there for me the whole time and I had no idea.”
The discovery has been an emotional one.
Thomas’s mother never told Kenneth Wimberly their relationship resulted in a pregnancy. Thomas is left to wonder why.
The man who raised her is taking the news hard, Thomas told “Good Morning America.” She also said she has “so many questions” for her mother, “but of course can’t get the answers.”
Kenneth Wimberly has questions, too.
“As a father, I’ve always been there and I’ve always raised my children and this deprived Ashley of having me in her life to raise her,” he told ABC’s “Good Morning America” of the discovery that the girl who had always called him “Big Kenny” was his oldest daughter. “I just feel so bad for her but we can’t undo what happened.”
Latoya Wimberly told CNN she was thrilled to find out Thomas is her sister, but feels a little guilty that she got more of his time.
“I watched Ashley go through so many things growing up and now all I can think about is that her father was here and he could have been there for her just like he was for me,” Wimberly said. “So that’s very emotional.”
But perhaps it worked out for the best that she and Ashley Thomas were sisters by choice long before they realized the bond was biological.
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“I wouldn’t change it because I don’t know if we had known we were sisters, that we would have this bond and be as close as we are,” Wimberly told “Good Morning America,” adding she has “questions but no regrets.”
The sisters have five children between them and, like their mothers, developed strong friendships with one another before learning they’re related.
“I’ll definitely be in their lives as a grandfather,” Kenneth Wimberly told “Good Morning America.”
“We just try to move forward,” he said.