Heidi Stevens: Penpals reconnect across the ocean after 20-plus years

By Heidi Stevens - Chicago Tribune

Andrew Piotrowski received a Facebook friend request from a name he didn’t recognize and, as one does, promptly ignored it.

A few days later, the requester sent him a note through Facebook’s direct messaging tool with a photo attached, and something in the corner of that photo caught Piotrowski’s eye.

It was his childhood address, written, he suspected, in his mom’s handwriting.

Kristina Brunjai sent the request. She was trying to track down Piotrowski to tell him she had a letter he had written to her more than two decades ago, when she was a little girl living in war-torn Croatia.

“I thought it would be nice if I could find the person that had sent me the letter and let him know that his gift made one little girl very happy,” Brunjai told me through email.

She had been helping her parents clean out their family apartment in the Slovanian city of Vinkovci a few weeks ago, and she found the letter in a pile of her childhood things.

She turned to Facebook.

“I browsed through every Andrew Piotrowski profile until I found the one that matched the address the most,” Brunjai wrote.

The childhood address on the letter is Vernon Hills, Ill. On his Facebook page, Piotrowski lists his hometown as Vernon Hills, although he now lives in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood.

“I took a deep breath and had my husband help me with the language, and I wrote a message to Andrew with a screenshot of the letter, hoping that I got the right Andrew and that he would remember,” Brunjai wrote. “I wanted him to know that he made me smile in those sad times, and that I think how good-hearted and kind person he is.”

Piotrowski accepted the request.

“I think my mom and my brother and I wrote letters to people through our church,” Piotrowski, 30, told me.

He grew up attending a little nondenominational congregation called Vineyard Community Church. They rented space in an old movie theater in Mundelein.

“I honestly don’t think I knew what was going on in Croatia or where it was,” he said. “I just wrote a few lines, ‘I like basketball,’ and sent some little gifts.”

The letter reads,

“Hi My name is Andrew. I hope you like the toys. I am 7 years old. I like basketball. I like to play, do you? Merry Christmas!”

Two stickers adorn the page. Mary holding baby Jesus next to “God’s Gift of Love,” and baby Jesus in a manger next to, “Away in a Manger.”

Piotrowski was born in 1988, so he figures he wrote the letter in 1995, toward the end of the Croatian War of Independence.

Brunjai’s mom told her the letter arrived at the leather factory where her father worked, along with several other letters and packages sent for the workers’ children.

“I remember it contained a spongy baseball, some school glue and this letter, all in one box,” Brunjai wrote. “Unfortunately, neither my mom nor dad remembers the exact year in which this had happened, but it must have been between 1993 and 1995. Those were very chaotic times for us. Nobody in my family was hurt during the war, but my two older sisters and I were refugees at our godparents in a non-war zone of Croatia, and mom and dad stayed in Vinkovci the whole time. This letter arrived to me when my sisters and I finally returned to Vinkovci for good and the war was kind of over.”

She was learning English in kindergarten, she said, so she was able to read the letter herself.

“I remember how my mother told me to carefully store the letter so I could maybe one day write to this kind boy,” she wrote. “I stored it and then life happened. I went to college, then started working and totally forgot about the letter.”

Now 33, Brunjai said she works as a classroom assistant for children with special needs. She lives in Osijek with her husband, who teaches English and Hungarian in the local primary school, and their 3-year-old son.

“It’s never boring at our place,” she wrote.

Piotrowski said he was touched that Brunjai saved the letter and went to the trouble of tracking him down. And he was reminded, he said, that kind gestures make an impact.

“If I’m thinking about doing something nice for somebody — even if it’s nothing major — this reminds me it’s worth doing,” he said. “You never know what kind of impact you’re going to have, even if it’s just being nice to somebody you pass on the street or writing somebody a letter.”

Brunjai ended her email to me with this:

“I told Andrew how I teach my son to be kind and to treat all people equally, which is hard because the war left a permanent impact on this whole area. People are strongly divided, and I want him to be the part of a new generation that doesn’t forget, but does forgive.

“I want him to be human in the first place and to treat others as humans,” she continued. “I hope this story will share that same vibe, and that your readers will remember to be kind to each other.”


By Heidi Stevens

Chicago Tribune

Heidi Stevens is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Reach her at hstevens@tribune.com or on Twitter @heidistevens13.

Heidi Stevens is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Reach her at hstevens@tribune.com or on Twitter @heidistevens13.

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