This is the story of one girl, two women and a cupcake.
It is a story of light in the dark, and the influence that one person can have on thousands.
Anya was a 12-year-old girl in my church congregation. In 2012, she was diagnosed with an aggressive bone cancer that required total hip replacement and multiple rounds of chemo and radiation.
Through it all, she attended school, made friends and spread her cheerful smile throughout the community.
When it became clear that she wasn’t going to make it, a woman in our ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Lori Kolberg, asked Anya’s mother if there was an experience Anya would like to have.
Her mother mentioned that Anya was a longtime fan of baking shows. Could Lori set up a tour of the popular new cupcake shop that opened down the street?
Kolberg went to work. She crafted an email and sent it to Nadia Cakes, where the owner, Abby Jimenez, had an established mission of helping sick children and families in need.
Jimenez replied to Lori almost immediately. “Of course,” she wrote. “We would love to spend a day with Anya.”
In early April, Anya went behind the scenes in the kitchen of Nadia Cakes. She was learning from no ordinary pastry chef. Jimenez, a self-described stay-at-home mom and self-taught pastry chef, famously blew away the Cupcake Wars judges with her cheesecake cupcake and won the show back in 2012.
But while Jimenez and her store manager Erin taught Anya, they came away deeply moved by the spirit and story of this young girl. Anya went home with a dozen cupcakes (including two for her beloved dogs). Jimenez went home wanting to do more.
A week later, she contacted Kolberg with other ideas, wondering if there were other experiences Anya might like to have. But Kolberg had sobering news. Anya had only days to live.
The following day, Nadia Cakes put out an announcement: On April 15, it would sell a specialty “Anya Cupcake” at both of its Twin Cities locations and donate 100 percent of the proceeds to Anya's family. Word soon spread among the store’s fanbase. A local news station picked up the story.
The day before the cupcake sale, Anya passed away, surrounded by her loving family. Even after such a long battle, the final days passed much quicker than anyone expected.
Early the next morning, the lines began to form. Jimenez and her crew began baking cupcakes at 2 a.m. Before the doors opened, Nadia Cakes was armed with 1,000 cupcakes. That was just the beginning.
All day, people streamed in — friends who loved Anya and loved her family, but also hundreds of complete strangers who heard Anya’s story and wanted to contribute. There were grandparents who lost grandchildren to cancer. There were parents who hugged their own children tight and said, “We don’t understand why ours are healthy and alive, but we will eat a cupcake in her honor.”
The shop baked cupcakes all day. They ran out once but quickly replenished the baking case.
People didn’t just buy one or two cupcakes. They bought them by the dozen. Cupcakes went out to every dance rehearsal and church group in town. The PTA at Anya’s junior high bought a cupcake for every student in the seventh grade.
I stepped in to Nadia Cakes around 3 p.m. The line reached out the door. There were dozens of fancy cupcakes on display, but everyone I saw bought the Anya Cupcake.
The cupcake was red vanilla bean and topped with whipped cream because Anya did not like frosting. The cream was decorated with glitter and gold dust, and festooned with a yellow heart, representing childhood cancer. The display case in front had a picture of Anya and told her story.
I never thought eating a cupcake could be a sacred event, but I have to say that what I saw, and how we shared those cupcakes with family and friends that day, was a holy act. Amid the bustle, there was a reverence in that cupcake shop. Anya and her family had touched all of us. There was so much we wanted to do in return.
Kolberg was there, watching people stream in and out laden with red cupcakes. A year earlier, to the week, she had lost her best friend to cancer. Now she had started this miracle. What were her thoughts, watching this?
“When you have an idea and act on it, it can go so much farther than you think,” she told me. “I don’t like the word ‘how,’ as in ‘how will we make this work?’ It’s all about faith.”
Faith and action. The next day, Nadia Cakes posted on its Facebook wall that the community had raised a stunning $35,000 for Anya’s family.
I called Jimenez on the phone. She admitted she had been crying for three days. She feels as if she did nothing of consequence.
“If it meant that Anya were still here, I would do anything,” she said, choking up again. “We sold cupcakes for one day. This family will have to live with the loss of this child for the rest of their lives. She was such a great kid.”
Anya was an incredible girl. Even in her passing, she gave us a gift: the chance to give back, and a reminder to our community that the world is full of good people looking for ways to help.
It's a realization that goes beyond cupcakes.