Looking up to someone generally entails admiring someone of greater wisdom and experience, which usually comes with age. But in Lacey, many look up to someone of lesser stature, 10-year-old Anastasia Kopack.
“She was 10 and she helped an 18-year-old girl through so much. If it wasn't for her I wouldn’t be where I am… She was amazing, and she could relate to so much at such a young age,” Rachel Lynn Inglis said of Ana.
She was diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare form of cancer, in March 2011.
Although declared cancer free just more than a month ago, she started getting headaches and the doctors found a brain tumor. The tumor was removed successfully but others were found.
To many, Ana was an angel well before her passing.
Inglis grew close to Ana by being friends with her brother Louis, she said.
“Ana was my little blonde baby girl, and she would always come over and give me hugs, and we would play in the sand and everything,” she said, adding that her fondest memory of Ana was when the Lanoka Harbor Fire Company came together to purchase Christmas gifts for the Kopacks, including Ana’s wish — an iPad. “She would thank me and hug me non-stop every time she saw me.”
Inglis’ brother Daniel, also a member of the fire department, suffered a spinal cord injury after a Christmas Eve car accident, leaving him paralyzed. Once Ana found out, she contacted Inglis on Facebook and offered support.
“She was the only one I could answer for two weeks because we just had a connection,” she said. “She helped me get through the difficulties. She told me he was my Christmas gift… She told me that no matter how cloudy the sky may seem there is always going to be a rainbow after the tears.”
Ana attended a benefit for Daniel and asked Inglis to give her a henna tattoo of a “beautiful heart,” Inglis said.
“She’s like it’s so pretty, hugged me, said thank you and went on with her day. She was a blessing… She’s a beautiful little angel, and she’s looking over my brother for me,” Inglis said.
Inglis will remember her smile and hugs most, she said. As many will.
Bianca Cotta, who met Ana at St. Christopher’s, the hospital she was being treated at, will also remember her hugs. “My fondest memory with her was when I first met her, and she didn’t want to talk to anybody but me. I felt special,” she said.
Ana’s friends Caitlyn and Ashlyn remember her constant smile at a recent benefit. They described her as “strong and beautiful.”
“Ana was and is probably the most amazing little girl I have ever met in my 24 years of life. She was always such a happy child, and there was never a moment when she did not have a smile on her face,” said Ashley Hoover, the Kopacks neighbor.
That smile is what Hoover will miss most, she said. While Hoover would be shoveling her driveway of snow, Ana would be across the street throwing snowballs at her brothers. Hoover would laugh, “because she wasn’t afraid,” she said.
“Her smile was so infectious, just like her laughter. You just couldn’t help but laugh and smile when she did,” she said.
Her smile was so eye-catching that Kristin Ellen Diemer, an old friend of Ana’s brother Louis, was inspired to start Smiles of the World, a project in which she sought to receive pictures of smiles from across the world.
“I wanted to get smiles from anyone and everyone I could to put together a collage and give to her to show that not only people in Lacey were cheering for her but everyone in the world was,” she said. “I never really got a lot of smiles and I never really got around to giving it to her.”
Diemer remembers Ana as “always happy” and willing to play “girly things” such as Barbies, dress-up or house.
“Ana was beautiful, that’s really how I can describe her best. She was beautiful inside and out. She was the sweetest little girl and not once have I seen her break down because of her condition,” she said.
While Judy Bendar, a Patch contributor and close friend of the family, was walking next to Ana's wheelchair talking to her mom, Ana reached and without saying a word, held her hand—one of her fondest memories, Bendar said. She'll also always remember the smile Ana gave her son as he held her as a baby on the Kopack's couch.
"Ana had a lot of spunk," she said.
'Strength and Determination'
Although only in fifth grade, Ana helped Jessie Fornal, another friend of her brother's, through her first year of college.
“Ana was a one in a million girl. She was very mature for her age and always had a big smile on her face whenever I saw her. She knew just how to make people laugh and smile with her amazing and open personality,” Fornal said.
At a school talent show, Ana sang Jars of Hearts by Christina Perri in which the lyrics read, “I learned to live half alive and now you want me one more time.” That performance is what Ana’s friend John Cron will remember most. The students' arms waved along and teachers shed tears, he said.
“There are many ways to describe Ana. She was faithful, happy, strong, tough, kept going with no complaining,” he said. “Any was loving, nice to be around, she was one you would always want to be around, her strength and determination were more than words can say.”
Cron continued to say that because of Ana, he is a stronger person today.
“She inspired me, the way she carried on, always with a smile on her face and continued to put up with that evil, nasty cancer, and that did not stop her in doing the things she wanted to do,” he said.
Ana loved school and would go as often as she could during her illness, Lanoka Harbor School second grade teacher Jodi Ritacco said.
"Her academic ability, musical talent, sense of humor, creativity, kindness and heart of gold made her well rounded," she said.
Ana used to write Ritacco letters after second grade, one of which told her how much she enjoyed it. Ana's favorite memory of second grade was drawing a picture of Principal Rosemarie Bond for the class in a thank you card.
"She was just so special...Ana taught me how important it is to be a fighter. Even when she was scared or nervous, she reached out to others, held on to her faith and never gave up," she said.
Ana’s viewing and funeral were packed with loved ones as Lacey and Stafford police departments escorted her to her final resting place at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Manahawkin. State police held traffic on the parkway for the procession, blocking all exits.
“It was like a celebrity treatment for little Ana and much deserved, too,” Dana DiBella said. Her daughter, Jules DiBella, described her close friend as “sweet, gentle and kindhearted.
“Ana taught me not to look at people who are sick as someone who is different than you,” Jules DiBella said.
Dana DiBella will always remember Ana’s last Sunday mass at St. Pius, she said. Ana was visibly ill and uncomfortable but was dressed nicely and “powered through.”
“What fortitude she had to do that!” Dana DiBella said. With tears in her eyes, she flashed Ana her first and second finger when it came time for the peace offering.
“She smiled and gave one back to me,” Dana DiBella said. “Ana taught me to appreciate every day with my kids and never take them for granted.”
Many fundraisers are in the works for the Kopack family, including one at Hebrew Park at 6 p.m. Friday, Oct. 12. The evening will feature a gift auction; bake sale, snack stand, fire trucks, two benefit soccer games and more.
“Her strength, courage, braveness, and will to keep fighting is what touched me so deep,” Hoover said. “Ana will always live on in every single one of us she touched, and I am pretty sure that there will not be one day that we won't think of this amazing little girl.”
Close friends and family continue to write on Ana’s Facebook page in her memory.
Her brother Louis recently wrote, “I love you my baby doll, my princess, my boob, my Ana banana, my potato, and my sister. You were my other half, and I will never forget you.”