Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

January 18, 2014

Family, teammates begin grieving process for former BHS athlete

By CODY NEFF
for the Daily Telegraph

BECKLEY — The recent death of Shelia “CoKo” Hopkins has affected people from Beckley to Bluefield and left everyone looking for answers.

UC-Beckley President Jerry Forster says the medical examiner is still investigating the cause of death.

“Detective (Morgan) Bragg ruled initially that it looks like natural causes and no foul play,” he said. “We’ve not heard an update from the examiner’s office.”

Regardless of the cause of death, Forster says losing a student is especially hard on a small community.

“At a small campus, you get to know these students at a deeper level,” Forster said. “I was blessed to know CoKo, not just as a student that I would see going to and from classes, the dining hall and her residence hall, but also as a basketball player.

“My wife and I, as is typical with presidents of small colleges, wanted to have a dinner for the on-campus students in September. After that first dinner we decided to have dinners every other Sunday for over three months. CoKo was a frequent participant in those dinners and my wife and I were blessed to know her in all of those facets.”

Forster says CoKo had a way of brightening people’s day.

“She was just a delightful young lady,” he said. “I noticed some quotes from the Bluefield community, high school officials, her classmates, and lifelong friends noted with joy that she was ‘funniest and most unforgettable’ of her senior class. That certainly resonates with those at UC-Beckley.”

Forster says he has been in contact with the family to make sure to take care of everyone.

“Our prayers continue to be with them and we feel so badly,” he said. “I have three children and four grandchildren. This is not a communication that you ever expect to receive and it’s a sad one. It also reminds us that we’re in a grieving period. We’re working with our students, the players on the basketball team.

“Young ladies like CoKo remind us why we’re here. She had goals to go to college. She had goals to play basketball. Her coach, Lisa Lee, was her mentor. Lisa was blessed with some good talent. She was an All-American in college and played professionally in Europe for six years. She’s friends with players like Alexis Hornbuckle and Renee Montgomery.

“CoKo was just so happy to be connected with and playing for Lisa Lee. Lisa, like many people, needs more time to deal with this loss and I’m sure at some point and time she will share her stories about CoKo and about how blessed she was to know her.”

The school recently helped CoKo’s family and friends get together so they could share their stories and grieve together.

“We got the family together with the on-campus students and there were about three-dozen student athletes and non-athletes that were in the student lounge in the John Eye building. We weren’t quite sure if the family was ready to interact with some folks like that but it ended up being very helpful.

“The family was very appreciative to hear about the students’ joy and love of CoKo and vice versa. The students were pleased to be able to share their stories with the family and knowing that they were part of their healing. CoKo meant so much to them as students just as she meant so much to the family.”

The school will keep grief counselors around over the weekend and into early next week, but Forster says he knows this won’t be easy for anyone.

“As we work through this, we want to get to the point where we’ll celebrate CoKo’s life as we think back on her life with joy and happiness. We’ll remember chatting with her and that she had a funny sense of humor, and always a smile on her face. We’ll think that we’re blessed to have been part of her life, although it was too short.

“The family loved their niece, their daughter, and their friend. There are young children that looked up to her and I understand that when she would come home for holidays and weekends, everyone was happy when CoKo was back in Bluefield.

“Time will take its course, but we’re still in that grieving stage of ‘Why did this happen to a person that was so young and looked forward to so much in her life?’ We’re here, as the family knows, to help them in any way we can.”

Forster says everyone hasn’t completely figured out how they want to honor CoKo for the future, but they know they want to do something.

“We’ve talked about when the funeral service will be. We want to be there. The players have talked about shirts they’ve ordered in honor of CoKo. We’ve talked about maybe planting a tree or placing a plaque in our gym. Those are early discussions. We might have a summer camp that is in her honor. It’s a summer girls’ basketball camp.

“We’re talking about those things and haven’t finalized what we’ll do, but we’ll do something. She was part of the inaugural UC-Beckley women’s basketball team. It was the first women’s basketball team in the history of this campus. She was a great role model for that inaugural team and we want to honor her appropriately.”

— E-mail: cneff@register-herald.com