They were just kids, Haddon Township High School friends in the springtime of their lives. Boys and girls hanging out in houses, driving Jersey roads, pulling pranks. Laughing.

But in July 2006, the laughter was cut short. One of the friends, 16-year-old junior and field hockey player Ann Marie Lynch, died in a jet ski accident off Ocean City.

"That was my first experience with mortality," said Tom Turcich, one of the pack, now 25. For months, he walked around in a fog of grief.

Until one day in class, he saw the movie Dead Poets Society and had his own carpe diem moment. "My response to Ann Marie's death was to live life well while I had it," he said.

He joined the school swim team and the cast of the musical. He dared to kiss a girl and high-fived stop signs all the way home.

What he really wanted to do was see the world, but he didn't have money. So he concocted a plan.

On April 2, the eve of his 26th birthday, Turcich is going to set out on foot.

He's calling it the World Walk, a five-year journey across seven continents. Along the way, he will blog, tweet, and post photos to his website.

"I wanted to leave while I'm still 25," Turcich said. "The longer I wait, the more responsibilities I have. Now I'm capable enough, I'm willing enough, and I'm not jaded enough. It's time to go."

From the sounds of things, Haddon Township has his back.

On Saturday night, a fund-raiser and send-off is scheduled at the Factory in Collingswood, complete with three bands, food, and lots of well-wishers.

Owner Tom Marchetty, a Haddon Township native, is donating the use of his space for the affair. He also is making the aluminum cart Turcich will use to carry his gear around the world.

Wildfire Radio, one of the entrepreneurs with space at the Factory, built him a website, theworldwalk.com, a kind of going-away gift.

The folks at Severino Pasta, who know the Turciches as customers and neighbors, are donating antipasto, meatballs, and pasta salad for 200.

"We're so proud of him," said Angelica Diodato, Severino's social media coordinator.

Marchetty, who has done some traveling himself, met Turcich only last fall, when he came in to see about a cart. Marchetty became Turcich's first sponsor and self-appointed booster.

"It's youth. It's something I couldn't do," said Marchetty, married with twins and a business. "It's exciting. It's inspiring. I'm envious."

Turcich had wanted to leave right after high school, but his parents had other ideas. College, buddy.

So he went to Moravian, majoring in psychology, minoring in philosophy, but not losing sight of his plan. With the help of a professor, he wrote to outdoors-oriented companies, seeking sponsors. No luck.

In 2009, tragedy again struck.

Shannon Newell, a neighbor and friend from Haddon Township, was killed in a car accident. A vocalist with a passion for musical theater, she was 19. It seemed like the whole town turned out for her funeral, Turcich said.

Her death reinforced his desire to pursue his dream and follow his credo: "Pay attention to life."

Pretty much since high school graduation, Turcich has been working - installing solar panels, more recently doing office work and waiting tables - to save for the trek.

He'd put away enough, he believed, to keep him going for 21/2 years, provided that he camped and stuck to staples like peanut butter and tuna. He has to make college payments, too. He'd worry about financing the rest of the trip later.

Then fortune smiled in a big way.

Bob Mehmet, president of the Philadelphia Sign Co., whose sons knew Turcich from school and who lives, of course, in Haddon Township, heard about the World Walk. They met. He was very impressed by Turcich's plan and his commitment. The dad in him was bothered at the prospect of Turcich's spending every night in a tent.

This week, Mehmet offered Turcich sponsorship that would, he hopes, keep him safe and give him at least some nights in hostels.

In addition, Mehmet said that for every mile Turcich travels, he will contribute to an existing scholarship fund in Lynch's name and another fund, named for Newell, that helps support Haddon Township High School's visual and performing arts program.

Mehmet quickly acknowledged that his company could benefit: Turcich and his cart will sport the company logo, and his website will feature a link so clients can follow the adventurer.

But Mehmet also sensed a real passion he wanted to support. "He didn't do this on a whim, and that's what sold me on it," Mehmet said. "He really wants to do this."

Turcich plans to travel about 22,000 miles in all, starting with the East Coast of the United States, over to Texas, into Mexico, through Central America, down the west coast of South America, into Argentina, and then on a boat to Antarctica. He plans to fly home for a visit and then another make flight to Europe. His itinerary also includes some North African countries, China, and Australia.

He figures he could probably make the trip in four years, but he wants time for detours, breaks from walking - and maybe to do some good.

Lynch would want that, he said. "She would say, 'You better help some people along the way. Don't just do it for yourself.' "

Loneliness, he figures, will be his biggest challenge. He will Skype his family, which will miss him. His father, also named Tom, a wanderer in his youth, said he plans to fly to Argentina and accompany his son to Antarctica.

"I'm excited for him," he said.

So is his son.

"I want the marrow Thoreau wrote about," Turcich wrote on his website, channeling the Walden author's desire to suck out all the marrow of life. "I want adventure and freedom and revelation. I want to stand on the edge of Earth, toe-to-toe with the universe."

The fund-raiser is scheduled from 7 to 11 p.m. at the Factory, 13 Fern Ave., Collingswood. Admission is $15 at the door.

rgiordano@phillynews.com

856-779-3893 @ritagiordano