FORNEY, Texas — DNA test kits are powerful things. They can reunite long-lost biological families, and they can tear apart other biological families who might have preferred that their long-lost secrets remain hidden.
But in Forney early last month, the DNA journey ended with an even bigger family of strangers rallying together to bring a long-lost dad and veteran home.
Mark Elliott often sheds a tear or two when he tells the story.
"A very dysfunctional home," he says of most of his childhood. "It was just extremely dysfunctional. And I will leave it there."
Elliott and his older sister Shauna had different dads. But, in Elliott's case, their mom would never tell him exactly who.
"Even last year, as my mom was on her death bed, I asked again. Mom are you sure?" he asked about the man she claimed was his dad. "And she said there is no one else it could be. But obviously my mom was still hiding something," Elliott said.
Elliott and his wife Sherry cared for his mom in their Forney home until her death October 6, 2021. Elliott's birthday was two days later and Sherry bought him an Ancestry.com DNA test kit. They sent it in and decided to get away for a while and take a small vacation.
"We were literally between Houston and Galveston and I got a text from Ancestry.com," Elliott said.
Unusual names were showing up, some he'd never heard before. But one of them, Bewley, his older sister somehow remembered.
"Now granted this is the memory of a four-year-old child," Sherry Elliott said. "But she said, but I vaguely remember a man named Arley Bewley dating mom."
Text messages and emails zipped back and forth across the country between the Elliotts and people who turned out to be distant biological cousins.
"There came a phone call that changed everything," Sherry Elliott said. "And we're sitting on the hotel room for our anniversary."
"8:30 that night," Mark Elliott said.
"And my phone rings. And he said 'this is Arley Bewley. I'm supposed to call you and what do you want?' And I said, hold on," Sherry said motioning to hand the phone to her husband.
The man on the other end of the line was Arley Wayne Bewley, 87, who said yes, he had been in Hobbs, New Mexico 52 years ago. And, yes, he did date a woman that he knew as "Ginger."
"And he goes, what does Ginger have to do with this," Elliott recalled of the first phone conversation. "And that's when I said well I'm her son. I'm not gonna pull any punches. Ginger was my mom and I believe that you are my dad."
"And at that point the phone got extremely silent. He was, 'oh boy, oh boy, oh boy, I'm 87, oh boy!' He said 'I'm an old man. Oh boy!'"
What Arley Bewley was able to say next was that he lived in Lufkin three hours southeast of Forney. And he agreed to meet the Elliotts.
"It was either going to be the beginning of something good or the beginning of something that wasn't going to turn out well. And we were prepared for either way," Elliott said.
What they weren't prepared for was where they found Bewley. He was living on disability in a one room shack in Lufkin. They first visited him in January. The shack didn't have any heat but it did have rodents -- mice and rats that would jump on his bed when he tried to eat.
"We hadn't been there five minutes and he said I wish there was a way to know for sure if I am your dad. That's when I said, as a matter of fact," Mark Elliott said as he retrieved an over-the-counter paternity test they'd purchased on the drive to Lufkin.
They got the results a week later.
"And I said guess what...Dad," Mark Elliott said.
"We said congratulations, it's a boy," Sherry Elliott laughed.
"Probably the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me," Bewley told me.
"So do you like this guy, Arley?" I asked him of his newfound son.
"No, I don't," Bewley replied. "I love him. It's almost unbelievable. It's like a fantasy come true, really."
But now that Elliott had found his dad, he couldn't simply leave him alone in that shack in Lufkin.
That's why my next conversation with Elliott was in the cab of a U-Haul truck.
"And I knew that I had to at least work to get him out of that situation," Elliott said. "Sometimes God gives you the ability to do something. And when he gives you the ability, what is your response? And you put those two words together and you have responsibility."
Responsibility that he wouldn't have to bear alone.
"About 30 seconds," Brian Wilburn of the Veterans Resource & Outreach Center of Rowlett said of the decision to help Mark Elliott when he received Mark's first phone call.
Bewley is an Air Force Korean War veteran. Wilburn sent a few texts and emails and within days a small volunteer army began to form.
The Elliotts purchased the shell of a manufactured cabin and had it transported to their 10-acre home in Forney. Home Depot of Rowlett and Rockwall donated thousands of dollars in construction materials. Beth Noska, Trey Franklin, and Darnell Franklin of 2 Gals Construction offered their construction expertise and labor. Volunteers with the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association and the Third Watch Motorcycle Club provided additional construction help. Rita Ferris Realty provided an AC unit. The Young Men's Service League helped with additional construction labor.
And, by early October, with Bewley's worldly belongings loaded into that U-Haul trailer, Mark Elliott brought his dad home.
"There's a lot of really good people out there that want to give back to the veteran community. They understand the sacrifices that these guys have made," said Brian Wilburn with VROC.
"That's something you want to do every day," said Franklin with 2 Gals Construction.
"He served our country and he deserves better than what he had," Noska added of the reasons she and Trey Franklin decided to offer their help to the cause.
"I would say thank you to each and every individual and each and every group that stepped up," said Wilburn. "Thank you to them for a job well done."
"Here's your house. Welcome home, dad," Elliott said as he wheeled Bewley into his new home. With his own living room, fully-equipped kitchen, handicapped-accessible bathroom, and voice-controlled lighting, Arley will be just a few yards away from his new-found son.
"I can't tell you how much he means to me," Arley said as he fought back tears. "Why it was so late in coming I don't know. When I was totally without a family, I now have one. And it's such a blessing to know that you got some kind of a family. Had it not been for him calling me I would have never known."
"And he said 'Mark, before you came into my life, I prayed daily God just take me. I have nothing to live for,'" Elliott recalled of some of the first conversations he had with his dad. "When we came into his life, he said I know now why God kept him alive."
"I thank the Lord for bringing him into my life and I'm proud that he did," Bewley added.
Bewley is also proud to learn he's a grandfather and a great-grandfather. And that a son he never knew existed, and a community of strangers, were willing to band together to save him and bring him home.
"That's been the most amazing thing to Arley," Sherry Elliott said. "That people would come together for him and give. And that has been amazing."
"Even now," Mark Elliott said, “oh my goodness, it is still so humbling."
"Son, I love you so much and I'm so glad you wanted to know who your father was. I would have never known," Bewley said that first day in his new home. "When I say my prayers at night my first thing is to thank God for bringing me my son and his family."
Bewley also has a new companion. Her name is Princess, the dog the Elliotts got him for his very first Father’s Day.