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Mamaroneck NY girl reunited with backpack lost on Michigan road trip

by Staff

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It was the kind of summer vacation you might see in a movie: an East Coast family packs up their car and leaves the hustle and bustle of suburban New York for the slower pace of the Midwest.

Drawn to Lake Michigan’s sparkling waters and seemingly endless coastline, more affordable prices and generous portions of ice cream, Andrew Galvin knew a road trip around the lake, by way of Niagara Falls, would make for a great vacation.

“It was just meant to be, you know, enjoy nature, get away from the city, be outdoors,” Galvin said. “Everyone brought lots of books.”

His daughter Lillie, 10, packed four books and perhaps her most prized possession, her favorite stuffed animal, Bunnyella, in her gray backpack, accompanied by another stuffed animal, Ducky, her pajamas and some travel essentials.

Galvin, Lillie, Lillie’s 13-year-old sister, her 11-year-old brother, Galvin’s girlfriend, and their two dogs packed into their Kia Telluride and set off this past August from Larchmont, for a two-week trip staying in woodsy Airbnbs and stopping in small coastal towns.

After a long day of driving — they took a meandering route along the east coast of Lake Michigan from Suttons Bay to South Haven, Michigan, making stops along the way — Lillie and her family stopped for the night around midnight. But as they brought their bags inside the Airbnb, Lillie’s gray backpack was nowhere to be found.

Bunnyella was gone.

Gone but not forgotten

Bunnyella’s importance to Lillie cannot be overstated.

The family’s beloved nanny, Cynthia Thomas, gave her Bunnyella when Lillie was just 2 or 3 years old.

“It’s the one thing that if it is forgotten somewhere else, it needs to be grabbed immediately,” said Lillie’s mom, Christie Philbrick-Wheaton. “It is the thing that moves with Lillie.”

When her mom or dad kiss her goodnight, they also kiss Bunnyella. The stuffed bunny has accompanied Lillie on many excursions.

“Bunnyella has always been very special to me,” Lillie said recently while wearing cat ears.

As it sank in that night that the backpack and Bunnyella were gone, Lillie cried and her dad was filled with dread.

“That was probably the most tears I’ve ever cried in my whole life,” Lillie said. “Like a river probably. Maybe two rivers.”

“Short of losing a kid or a dog,” Galvin said, “this was the worst possible thing to lose.”

They tore the car apart, to no avail. Lillie cried herself to sleep that night.

Lillie called Thomas and told her she lost Bunnyella.

“I just went silent, you know, because I know how much that meant to her,” Thomas said.

Lillie’s sister and brother were supportive. Her brother even let her sleep with his stuffed bunny, the same model as Bunnyella. And Lillie decided not to let her loss ruin the trip.

The family didn’t stop trying to find Bunnyella.

Galvin considered retracing their steps, which would mean driving back the way they came, over 3.5 hours, but they were on too tight of a schedule to allow for that.

Instead, they called businesses where they had stopped, inquired on Facebook groups and even prayed to St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost things.

Meanwhile, in Suttons Bay

Eric Gerstner and his wife Rose were returning to their Suttons Bay home from a weekend away last August. They happened to notice a man rearranging bags in an SUV parked on the street outside their house.

They didn’t think anything of it.

But when Gerstner came back out to walk to the post office about 15 minutes later, the SUV was gone and a backpack was in the street.

Gerstner hung the backpack on a metal hook that would normally hold a hanging plant in the park across the street from their house. He hoped the backpack’s owner would return to look for it. But when it was going to rain a couple days later he brought it inside.

He opened it hoping for a way to identify its owner and found the books, Bunnyella and Ducky.

“I just knew it was important to somebody,” Gerstner said of the backpack — an instinct that comes from being a father of four kids, now grown.

The only clue was tucked into a copy of “We Had to be Brave” by Deborah Hopkinson, a book about children who escaped Nazi Germany. Bookmarking the pages was a receipt from a Scholastic book fair at Mamaroneck Avenue School in Mamaroneck, New York.

An unlikely reunion

Almost a month had passed since Lillie’s backpack went missing.

“I’d been trying to get over Bunnyella,” Lillie said.

At the start of school, Thomas gave Lillie a new stuffed bunny, who she named Bunzy.

Then, on the second day of school, Lillie’s teacher answered her classroom phone and asked her fifth grade class if anyone had visited Michigan over the summer. Lillie raised her hand. Then the teacher asked if anyone had lost a backpack. Lillie kept her hand raised.

“I go down to the main office,” Lillie said. “I’m already shedding a tear and almost crying full on.”

Principal Sandra Zadrima presented Lillie with her gray backpack, full of her prized possessions and, mostly importantly, Bunnyella.

“Everybody was crying,” Zadrima said.

Zadrima explained to Lillie that the backpack had been mailed to the school. And that it came with a letter from a couple who found the backpack in the street outside their Michigan home 900 miles away.

“It sounds cliché to say but it’s totally one of those things that restores your faith in humanity,” Lillie’s mom said.

The kindness of strangers

Galvin, Philbrick-Wheaton and Lillie all wrote letters to Gerstner and his wife, thanking them for not giving up on returning the backpack to its owner. And they even met over Zoom.

They were able to piece together that the backpack slipped out of the trunk when Galvin moved it back there to make more room for their two dogs before they left Suttons Bay.

Galvin recalled that when he asked Lillie if he could put her backpack in the trunk, she resisted. “I said, ‘Don’t worry. It’s fine. It’ll be right here.’ “

In Lillie’s retelling — peppered with exuberant impressions of her father, what at times sounded like a British accent, and a laugh fit for a Disney movie — she talked about the possibility of being “scarred for life.”

But life has gone back to normal. Lillie, with a flair for showmanship, is starring in her school’s production of “Seussical” as The Cat In the Hat.

And despite the emotional reckoning that came with their trip, the family plans on returning to Michigan for many summers to come.

“I’m just not in charge of luggage,” Galvin said.

Contact Diana Dombrowski at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @domdomdiana.

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