Nicole Strain Spirit, a beloved biology teacher at Shawnee High School in Medford, was remembered by family and friends Friday as a free spirit who loved animals and inspired her students to give their best.
More than 500 people attended a memorial service for Spirit at the Wooster Funeral Home in Atco. They waited patiently in line for hours, some standing outside in a brisk cold wind as the crowd snaked around the building.
"So many people loved her," said Rebecca Simpson, 18, of Medford, a 2016 Shawnee graduate and a freshman at West Virginia University. "She was very bubbly and always had a positive attitude."
Spirit, 32, of Atco, died Tuesday at Cooper University Hospital after sustaining a brain injury in a motor vehicle accident. She spent 10 days in a coma, her family said.
Her brother, Erin Strain Zipperle, said Spirit was headed to a farm in Waterford Township on Dec. 17 to make scrapple when her pickup truck skidded off an icy road, slamming into a tree.
She was not wearing a seat belt, he said. The family wants to use her death to encourage others to wear seat belts, he said.
"She lived every second," Zipperle said. "Just live today, because you never know."
The oldest of three siblings, Spirit survived a bout of leukemia and was declared cancer free in 2013 after years of chemotherapy and treatment, said her mother, Andrea Strain.
"Instead of being beaten down, she came out of this traumatic experience with a zest for life and eagerness to make a difference in other people's lives," said a tribute on a GoFundMe page set up by her family that had been shared more than 1,000 times Friday and raised more than $17,000 in one day.
"She lived her life and she loved the life she lived," her mother said. "She was just amazing."
During a visitation that lasted nearly four hours Friday, mourners shed tears, hugged, and shared heart-warming stories. As music softly played, they filed past memorial tributes set up by the family around the funeral parlor, which was lined with colorful floral arrangements.
Spirit used her illness as a teaching moment, taking her bone marrow test to school to share with her students, said her grandmother Lois Mauro. Students said Spirit would often bring in items from her farm.
"She was as beautiful as everyone said," her grandmother said. "She was unique."
Spirit taught biology and advanced biology at Shawnee, where she was an adviser for the Animal Welfare Club and Biology Club. Last spring, she was a chaperone for the senior class trip to Walt Disney World, Rebecca Simpson said.
Her upbeat attitude cheered up her students, especially in early morning classes when some were grumpy, said Julia Krilov, 16, a junior at Shawnee, adding that Spirit would give her chocolate candy when she was having a bad day.
Spirit also developed a good rapport with parents and would send emails if students were having trouble with a class. She would reassure parents that she would help the students, said Kim Simpson, mother of Rebecca.
"She wanted everyone to be successful," said Simpson, 51, a nurse. "She didn't want anyone to fail."
Spirit earned a bachelor's degree in large animal science at Delaware Valley University and was studying for a master's degree in biology at Rutgers University.
She lived on a family farm in Waterford, where she raised chickens, pigs, goats, and other livestock and was "very organic," said friend Justine Lucas. "It was her pride and joy."
Zipperle said that after funeral expenses are paid, the family plans to set up a foundation to honor his sister and possibly establish a scholarship at Shawnee. She would have celebrated her 33rd birthday next Saturday.
Mourners were given a prayer card with two of her favorite inspirational sayings: "In the end, it's not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years," and "Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened."
Spirit is also survived by her husband, William; father, Joseph; and sister, Shannon.
Condolences may be offered to the family at lpwoosterfuneralhome.com.