For family, friends and students of Kimberlea Ann Copelin, her death at age 47 due to insidious brain cancer seemed to cruelly shortchange her several years of life. But the way Kimberlea figured it, she had been gifted an extra four decades.
In 1978, when she was 4 years old, Kimberlea was diagnosed with leukemia. The outlook was grim. Her desperate parents, Kelly and Janice Martin, took her from Springfield to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, where a grueling regimen of treatment subdued the disease.
By the early 1980s, Kimberlea was pronounced cancer-free. And she resumed living a life that, subtly but significantly, touched the lives of thousands of others until a different form of cancer crept into her body. She died Feb. 17.
“Even if you live to be 100, life is short — just a blip of time. We have just a few years to be a positive influence and a positive light to other people, and Kimberlea made the most of her years,” says John Copelin, who was wed to her in 2000.
“Kimberlea was the most unselfish person I have ever met. She always cared about other people, always put others first. She believed God had a purpose in curing her when she was a child.
“I think she did 80 years’ worth of good in 40 years.”
Kimberlea began working as an elementary school teacher with a six-year stint at Fordland following her 1999 graduation from Drury University. The final 15 years of her classroom career were spent teaching first, second and third grades at Springfield’s McBride Elementary School, where she is remembered fondly.
“Kimberlea was the kindest person I ever met,” recalls McBride Principal Lael Streight. “She always showed her students the utmost respect. Even if there was something they were doing wrong, she really sought to understand and tried to help them learn how to cope and how to make better choices.
“When I would give her a kiddo who maybe was a little ornery or who got into trouble a little bit, Kimberlea would love them no matter what. She would come in early, she would stay late, she would do whatever it took to help.
“She wouldn’t just go out on the playground — she would play with the kids. She would look around and maybe find the kiddo that nobody was playing with. And she would say, ‘Hey, maybe you can push me on the swing. Or I can do this or that with you.’ She made everybody feel included.”
Streight says Kimberlea’s thoughtfulness extended to adults as well.
“Any time someone in the building was having a bad time, they would find a note on their desk or a note in their mailbox, or she’d just come by and give some kind words. She was what I call a cup-filler — one who, when you’re having a rough day, will stop by and fill your cup back up and remind you why you do what you do.
“A lot of us like to believe that that’s how we are modeling our lives, but very few can say we really are. Kimberlea really did. She lived it. She was an inspiration for all of us.”
Others on McBride’s teaching team echo their principal’s assessment.
‘Her students never had to wonder if they were loved’
“What a good heart she had, for kids and for teaching,” marvels Stephanie Summers. “I just never heard Kimberlea say a bad word about anybody. When talking about a challenging student or a family she needed help with, she always framed it as ‘How can I help them? What can I do to make a difference in this person’s life?’”
Shasta Gift says Kimberlea was “one of a kind. She would go out of her way to make sure everyone knew they were cared about. Her students never had to wonder if they were loved. She fought for them so hard. And it was really special to work with her because she was willing to do whatever it took.”
Gift recounts a day just before the start of this school year and just before Kimberlea’s brain cancer revealed itself:
“I was in the building because I was moving classrooms. Kimberlea just showed up to do something on her computer. She didn’t even know what I was doing.. But when she saw why I was there, she said ‘Hey, you’re moving — I’ll just stay and help.’ And she stayed for five hours helping me!
“And then, just a couple days later, she went down…”
John says everyone, especially him and 16-year-old daughter Lauren, were shocked when Kimberlea suffered a severe seizure without warning on August 3. Rounds of testing diagnosed the presence of a tumor in her brain. Major surgery was followed by radiation and chemotherapy through the fall, which weakened her immune system and allowed debilitating infections to take hold and put her into a coma
“She was in the hospital for Christmas and New Year’s. I didn’t want to be planning a funeral at Christmastime. I didn’t want our daughter to have to think of Christmas as the time that her mom died. I prayed so hard that that wouldn’t happen.”
So even though the outlook remained grim, John was ecstatic when Kimberlea awoke and was able to walk out of the hospital on Jan. 3 to return home for the remainder of the month. However, at the start of February she began having motor control problems, and an MRI on Feb. 5 confirmed that the tumor had regenerated and was as large as it had been before surgery. She remained at home, but was placed under hospice care.
Kimberlea’s support network had always extended beyond relatives, friends and co-workers. Her “second family” was at Second Baptist Church, where she had been an active member for more than 30 years.
Nick McClure taught the Sunday School class that Kimberlea and John attended.
“When she’d walk into my class every Sunday, she always had a huge smile. She could be serious when the occasion called for it, but Kimberlea was just lots of fun with a great laugh. She filled up the room with her personality.”
McClure especially appreciated Kimberlea’s eagerness to be helpful. “If we needed something done, like putting on a Christmas party or any kind of social event, she’d want to be involved. She’d raise her hand and volunteer. She loved to help out, to be a jolly, happy part of whatever the class was doing.”
Kimberlea’s ‘servant heart’
Leah Capps, minister of pre-school education at Second Baptist, admired what she termed Kimberlea’s “servant heart.”
“She was always willing to fill in or help in any way. She loved on kids. She loved on my team, my staff. She’d work in the nursery room walking babies during services, or wherever she was needed. She was always a cheerleader for what we were doing. I miss her heart.”
Kimberlea also was helpful on a personal level, according to McClure.
“When somebody had a problem, she could speak to them privately or with the class, and share an example or a story of something that happened in her life or in the life of someone she knew or worked with. She sympathized with people and was very empathetic. Because of what she’d been through with leukemia as a little girl, she could understand what a lot of people were going through.
“Kimberlea is greatly missed. She is irreplaceable.”
And Kimberlea isn’t likely to be forgotten.
“Kimberlea would be embarrassed about how much everyone misses her,” teaching partner Summers says. “She didn’t think of herself as great and wonderful — but she was! I just wish everyone could have known her the way we knew her.”
John says Kimberlea’s faith sustained her and continues to do so for him and others. He notes a canvas on which Kimberlea painted an image of flowers and the motto “Bloom Where You Are Planted.”
“She believed that; she lived that. Wherever God put her, she bloomed, whether it was at school, or with the family and friends camping at the lake, or wherever. She believed that she had a purpose, and she was determined to fulfill it.
“Her courage through her battle was so inspirational. She never once got mad. She was positive and cheery. Even though she was the one dying, she was always thinking of others and praying for others. I hope her example gives faith and hope and strength to others.
“You can’t always control cancer, but you can control how you react to it. You can give thanks and feel that you’re blessed, even during hard times. Bad things happen to good people. When they do, you have to stay positive.
“Kimberlea did just that. She was grateful for the time she had, and she accepted whatever happened next as the Lord’s will. She never lost faith. Her attitude was: If God healed her, that would be great. But if he called her home, she’d be healed there. Either way, she was going to be healed.”
Her memorial service drew an overflow crowd. And a private Facebook group — Kimberlea’s Walk of Faith — that was set up to document and preserve her final months, continues to draw steady traffic. A popular feature on the page is a video produced by students in media classes at Kickapoo High School who came to McBride and recorded greetings from students, faculty and staff. It buoyed Kimberlea’s spirits when shown to her.
The page also provides a link to make contributions to St. Jude’s. “The doctors there, and the Lord, gave Kimberlea a second chance at life,” says John. “She took it seriously.”