Lanoka Harbor School Principal Rosemarie Bond took her time when asked what she would remember most about student Ana Kopack.
She looked down at the striped paper clip she was spinning with her fingers and took a deep breath, remembering Ana.
“She was a very brave and courageous girl who fought a difficult battle,” Bond said. “We really are privileged to have had the opportunity to know Ana and be a part of her life.”
She was diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare form of cancer, in March 2011.
“Ana was a very strong person and very mature. And she loved to have fun,” Bond said. “It’s just a difficult time for family, staff and students. Our hearts go out to the family.”
The school district and Lacey community is mourning the loss of Ana.
“Everyone knew her,” said Mill Pond Guidance Counselor Donna Gahr, although she did not know Ana personally. But Ana was known by most because so many fundraisers had been held for her. Gahr knew Ana as a “silly and shining little girl.”
On Thursday, Mill Pond students came off the buses wearing pink and purple, Ana’s favorite colors, Gahr said. The initiative wasn’t planned by the school district but following Ana’s death, students banded together.
“It was nice they came together as a community,” she said. “It’s a testament about how much they knew Ana and cared for her.”
Today, students and staff at the Lanoka Harbor School would be wearing yellow in remembrance of “Ana Banana,” Ana’s nickname, which she loved, Bond said.
Since Ana’s death, the school district has had trained grief counselors on hand.
“There has been a steady stream of students,” Gahr said from the Mill Pond library, where tables were set up specifically for that purpose. Rooms have been set up throughout the school for those students who would prefer to talk privately.
“We’re making this a tranquil and peaceful way for them to share what’s on their hearts,” she said.
Each table had bright table cloths covering them and were lined with activities —crayons, paper, meaningful quotes, healing stones, stress balls, magnets with positive words.
“Children this age gravitate toward those things,” Gahr said. “They need to find a happy place.”
By noon on Thursday, one group of four students had been down to talk to the counselors for a second time — this time to discuss ways to cope at home.
“Children like to get their feelings out,” Gahr said.
A pile of Winnie the Pooh quotes sat on the tables, “If there ever comes a day when we can’t be together, keep me in your heart, I’ll stay there forever.”
On Wednesday and Thursday, grief counselors were available to students and families until 8 p.m. Families had utilized the service, Gahr said.
Staff met with Director of Special Services Michael Maschi to discuss how to deal with the upcoming weeks — how to identify students in need of help and how to address students’ questions.
“We want them to have a safe place,” he said. “The main goal is to be present and actively listen.”
Grief counseling is available in all of the district buildings, Maschi said.
“Families certainly have been very appreciative,” Gahr said, adding that the students have been very “tender” with each other.
“As a staff, we’re here to support the Kopack family, students and parents,” Mill Pond Principal Dr. Peter Kopack said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the family.”
There are 15 trained grief counselors throughout the district, Maschi said. Mill Pond had eight to 10 staffed in that building alone the last two days.
“They’ve graciously volunteered their time. I’m satisfied and thrilled with the response of the staff. It’s phenomenal,” he said.
Although the extended hours of grief counseling were only offered on Wednesday and Thursday, students will have the availability within the schools for weeks and even months to come.
“It’s not feelings for this week or next week,” Gahr said.
“There is no timeline,” Kopack said.
The district also understands that this is a sensitive time, Gahr said. For those families who don’t want to talk, literature is available for pick up.
The district has also reached out to the Ocean County Traumatic Loss Coalition, a statewide network that offers support to professionals working with school-age youth.
The New Jersey Education Association also maintains a crisis line to assist the teachers, Maschi said.
“We’re really concerned with our staff as well,” he said. “We’re concerned about the overall health of the system.”
The viewing for Ana will be held 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. Friday at the Timothy E. Ryan Home for Funerals O’Connell Chapel at 706 Route 9 in Bayville.
The funeral will be on Saturday, Sept. 29 at 10 a.m. at St. Pius in Forked River with a burial to follow at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Manahawkin.
Also, a fundraiser started by two of Ana’s friends — Caitlyn and Ashlyn — will be held for the Kopack family at 6 p.m. Friday, Oct. 12 at Hebrew Park. There will be a gift auction, bake sale and snack stand. The event will also feature two benefit soccer games between the girls soccer team and the women coaches and the boys soccer team and the male coaches.