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By KRISTI L. GUSTAFSON, Staff writer
First published: Saturday, March 10, 2001
Addressing feelings

Pen Pals Across the Water lets sick children correspond with one another

When Rachel Rosa whispers "Mom, you just don't understand what it's like to be the sick kid,'' it breaks her mother's heart.

The 11-year-old Delaware County girl learned she had both lyme disease and mercury poisoning in 1998. Nearly two years later she joined Pen Pals Across the Water, a new program designed to forge links between chronically ill children.

Artist Diana Rose-Miller, 65, of Scotland is the force behind the letter writing. Her "Hurricane'' paintings -- abstract, colorful and each named for a child -- inspired Pen Pals Across the Water.

"Children are like hurricanes,'' she says. "Always moving and changing.''

Rose-Miller chose the name of the group for her mission to unite sick children, even across an ocean.

Hospitalized at a young age for tuberculosis, Rose-Miller spent her days in the children's ward at a medical center in Edinburgh isolated from her family.

"I was bored and lonely,'' she says, in a soothing British accent. "So I spent my time staring at the beautiful ceiling. It was blue with silver stars and a moon, inspiring me as an artist.'' Although Rose-Miller currently lives in Scotland, her primary education was in England, and in 1974 she studied at the New York League of Arts in New York City.

Each child in the program has one of Rose-Miller's paintings and the swirling works are a catalyst for their letters.

"I always start by looking at my Hurricane painting, then writing how it makes me feel,'' Rachel says. She has been involved in Pen Pals Across the Water since it began more than six months ago. Rachel and her family met Rose-Miller when the Rosas rented a cottage from her on a trip to Scotland early in 1998, before Rachel got sick. Rose-Miller and the Rosas remained good friends. When Rose-Miller heard Rachel was ill she wanted to do something to help lift the young girl's spirits -- so Pen Pals Across the Water was born.

The lyme disease and mercury poisoning make Rachel lethargic, give her head and joint aches and cause her to miss about 10 days of school a month. She realizes she has many things in common with the terminally ill children in the program, many who are far worse off than she -- and they write about those interests.

In addition to helping the ill children begin their letters, the Hurricane paintings provide a common ground for the pen pals, aside from the "sick kid'' stigma.

"I talk about books and things I like to do, like play basketball,'' Rachel says.

When she writes, she often addresses her worries about missing school, and how classmates react to her being sick.

"Every now and then we switch (sports) teams and I come back and have no clue what one I'm on,'' she says. "Also, lots of kids think they can catch what I have.''

Rachel not only sees the program as a way to communicate with, and hopefully cheer up, other children, but as an English and writing lesson.

Her mother and father also say the Pen Pals Across the Water has been a huge help to their daughter.

"As parents, we had done everything to help Rachel through the physical part of her illness, but she was getting more and more depressed and lonely,'' Annmarie Rosa says. "But, thanks to this program, she's happier and more upbeat.''

Pen Pals Across the Water, which currently has more than a dozen members, helps her daughter know she is not alone and that other people can relate to how she feels, Rosa says.

"The kids Rachel writes to know what it is like to be poked and to have your veins hurt,'' Rosa says. "That's something healthy kids can't relate to.''

Both Rose-Miller and Rosa are hoping to get more children involved and say healthy kids are welcome to join. The current participants found out about the program through word of mouth.

Rachel has three pen pals, all who live overseas, through the program. They're just about her age, but all have different problems and different degrees of illness. She is hoping to soon have a few more because she loves getting mail.

"Right now, Mom and Dad get most of the mail,'' Rachel says. "Because they have to pay the bills.''

For information on Pen Pals Across the Water, call Annmarie Rosa at (845) 586-2664 or e-mail penpalsacrossthewater@hotmail.com.

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