DOVE MORISSETTE, Daily News of Newburyport
MERRIMAC, Mass. — For the past six months, Emma Journeay has been collecting souvenirs from 46 countries, 50 states and all the continents, including Antarctica — without stepping foot outside the state.
Emma, who just turned 9, attended third-grade at Merrimac’s Donaghue School for only four days in September before being diagnosed with stage IV neuroblastoma, a malignant cancer that forms in nerve tissue and usually occurs in infants and children.
“She told me that she was a little sad that she wasn’t going to be able to do the pen pal picnic this year at school, and I said, ‘Well, we’re going to do something a heck of a lot better than that,’” said Kathy Terceiro, a family friend and Donaghue School teacher who tutors her.
Thus, Emma’s Pen Pal Adventure Around the World was born on Facebook in November.
Emma, who lives in Merrimac with her parents, Derek and Tina Journeay, and older brothers, Jack and Sam, said she had no idea she would get such a response. Some of the thousands of letters and cards she received fill four scrapbooks, with the overflow joining countless gifts in numerous plastic storage containers. On her family’s dining room wall hangs a map of the world with the name of her adventure at the top, a gift from a pen pal. Emma’s mom marks all the countries represented with a blue push-pin.
“We thought it was going to be local, like our friends might send some cards. We never thought it was going to get around the world,” Tina Journeay said.
Emma’s first pen pal was a person in Japan, who sent her a kimono. One gift that especially made Emma laugh was a coconut from Hawaii, her name and address written directly on the coconut and postage affixed to it. The Espinosas, an American family that lives in England now and travels extensively, are some of her most devoted pen pals, sending her gifts and letters from everywhere they go.
Merrimac postal carriers Tina Tischler and Greg LeClost, who Terceiro said are “the best ever,” deliver the packages and letters directly to Terceiro’s classroom at Donaghue School since her home mailbox is too small for all of the bundles. Terceiro brings them to the Journeays’ house for Emma to open — or to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston if she is undergoing treatment. Wanting to share her treasures, Emma has given some of the gifts, like Barbie dolls and princess-themed presents, to younger girls also being treated there.
While Emma’s illness prevents her from responding to every letter or gift personally, the Journeays try to send a photo postcard of Emma to every sender as a thank you.
After learning about so many countries during her pen pal adventure, Emma is already making a list of the places she wants to see in person when she’s better. The first city she wants to visit is Paris. During one of Emma’s hospital stays, Sharon Pacenka, a family friend from Merrimac, started painting a mural of the Eiffel Tower on Emma’s bedroom wall and finished it recently.
But the first trip Emma will take will be to California to visit the set of her favorite TV show.
“That’s where the ‘iCarly’ set is. (We’ll go) as soon as she’s well enough and filming is in season,” Tina Journeay said.
The visit was lined up by the show’s production coordinator, Danny Gomez, who has been a loyal pen pal, sending her autographed photos of the show’s stars and a video of them wishing her well.
Tina Journeay said it’s the generosity and thoughtfulness of the many kids who correspond with Emma that most amazes her.
Opening a handmade booklet of puzzles and jokes, she added, “This kid’s 10, and he just spent all this time writing to her and putting this together so she can do this stuff in the hospital: knock-knock jokes, decoding messages. We don’t know him.”
Emma’s pen pal adventure is an ongoing family vacation of sorts. The younger of her two brothers, Sam, 12, is most actively involved in it. He particularly liked the autographed photo of WWE celebrity John Cena she received and the candy from Germany and Switzerland — as well as anything from Jamaica, which is the place he most wants to see.
“Sam will get on his computer to Google some of the places she’s gotten things from … It’s like a whole family learning project,” Tina Journeay said.
This summer, others can see the mementos Emma collected on her virtual voyage. Journeay and Terceiro plan to exhibit some of the keepsakes from Emma’s pen pal adventure at Merrimac Public Library. Emma’s all for that, under one condition: They have to be displayed in glass cases to safeguard the treasures received from her friends across the globe.
Emma’s pen pal adventure “gives her something to look forward to,” her mom said, and it will continue for at least the near future. Emma is scheduled to head back to the hospital for another month of chemotherapy.
“I think we keep it going until she’s cured, until she’s all set, until she’s cancer-free,” Terceiro said.
For more about Emma’s Pen Pal Adventure Around the World, see and “like” her page on Facebook.