If you’re one of the lucky people to stumble upon a message in a bottle washed up on the beach, it’s always an interesting experience. There are countless stories about people connecting with strangers after finding their letters, or finding notes written ages ago.
But when one woman recently found a bottle hidden in the sand, she realized it was something more meaningful than the typical found message—and discovered the heartwarming, bittersweet story when she tracked down the sender.
Stephanie Winnek was working on Cinnamon Beach, in Palm Coast, Florida, when she noticed a bottle lodged in the sand. It caught her attention—she knew it wasn’t just trash.
“I could tell there was something rolled up in it,” Winnek recalled to Inside Edition. She decided to investigate.
“It was tied and rolled like a message in a bottle. I couldn’t get the cork out.”
Winnek took the bottle home from the beach. A few days later, she resolved to finally get it open.
When she got the cork out, she examined the contents. There was a letter, and something else she couldn’t identify.
So she read the letter. It was written by a woman named Athina McAleer, from Charlestown, Rhode Island, four years ago—and the letter made it clear what was in the bottle. Winnek was stunned when she found out.
“I said, ‘Oh my god, [her] mom is in this bottle,” Winnek told WJAR.
“These are her ashes.”
They were the ashes of McAleer’s mother, Cindy Rounds, who died of cancer in 2010. She was only 53 years old.
The letter explained the heartbreaking reason her family decided to put her in a message in a bottle.
“We thought we would send [her] on a little bit of her on a trip,” McAleer explained.
“She never got to travel because she was taken from us at a young age.”
Winnek was incredibly moved by the story. “I was overcome with emotion,” she told WJAR.
McAleer didn’t know if anyone would ever find her message in a bottle, but in case they did, she included her contact info in the letter. Winnek reached out and let her know that, four years later, her mother’s ashes had made it all the way down the coast.
McAleer was stunned to hear from her.
“I was very overwhelmed, it just makes me feel like there are still good people out there,” she told WJAR.
“She was always someone giving to other people and she always sacrificed everything for her children,” she recalled of her mother. “This was my little inspiration to let her travel, see the world.”
So Winnek decided to make sure her journey would continue.
She decided to bottle up Rounds’ ashes once again, and send them off the coast for another adventure.
But first, she scattered a few of the remains around a palm tree in her yard.
Alongside the original letter, she included her own—saying that Rounds had made a stop in Florida.
McAleer was incredibly touched, and grateful that Winnek had been the one to make the discovery.
“I couldn’t have found a better person to find the bottle,” McAleer said. “It’s just really cool that she will continue on.”
“Maybe in four years someone else will contact me saying they found her. She gets to see the world that she never got see.”
Winnek was grateful she found the message, too—and for the unforgettable journey it took her on.
“It’s amazing. It’s a real-life message in a bottle and that doesn’t happen every day,” Winnek told Inside Edition.