HERON LAKE — Folks from throughout the local area entered the new year in a state of mourning, grieving the loss of Heron Lake's Saveena Bappoo, who died Dec. 26 after contracting the novel coronavirus.

"She was a sweet person — very kind and loving," said Cheryl Knutson, Saveena's best friend for a decade.

"I never knew her not to have a smile on her face," recalled Lori Henkels, who worked for Saveena for four years.

A native of the island of Trinidad, Saveena immigrated first to New York City and then moved to southwest Minnesota in 2009 with her husband, Ron. In the 11 years she lived in the area, Saveena made quite an impression on the community, most notably as the proprietor of Heron Lake's Plaza Grill restaurant.

"They weren't just customers to her," said Knutson, adding that she spent many hours working with her friend at the restaurant and witnessed Saveena's winning smile and world-class service regulary.

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A frequent customer, Windom's Ann Robinson shared that Saveena remembered not just the name of every Plaza Grill guest, but their drink order and what kind of salad dressing they preferred.

"She never knew a stranger," Henkels said., noting that Saveena was known to greet people with a hug (for the men) or a kiss on each cheek (for the women), if they'd let her.

"She made her business her business," Robinson added.

For example, Robinson's husband, George, has a daughter who lives in Dallas. When the daughter would come to visit and the three would eat at Plaza Grill, Saveena remembered the daughter and took an interest in her.

Her big heart and sharp memory endeared Saveena to everyone around her.

"She made herself part of the fabric of the community," Robinson said.

People loved Saveena, in part, because it was so easy to be with her.

"Even if we didn't talk every day, we'd just fall into a groove," Henkels said.

Both Robinson and Henkels recalled Saveena's kindness in the aftermath of a 2019 fatal car crash that took the life of Henkels's son, Wyatt.

Without waiting to be asked, Saveena immediately came to the Henkels home to pay her respects — and showed up with two platters of sandwiches in tow.

"We needed every last one of those sandwiches," Robinson said, noting that 20-year-Wyatt had many young friends who enjoyed the sustenance while mourning together.

"That's what I remember the most, is how she was there for me," Henkels explained.

Knutson summed up how much of the Heron Lake community felt about Saveena: "She had that magic about her."

Saveena was hospitalized Nov. 4 after contracting COVID-19 and sustaining serious — and eventually fatal — symptoms. She struggled with not being able to see her family, friends and customers. Knutson made frequent visits to her friend's Sioux Falls, South Dakota hospital room to keep her company and run errands.

Despite hope for a miracle, Saveena's condition worsened, and she died Dec. 26. She was 47.

"The loss is unimaginable," Henkels said. "You always think someone is going to be there, and then all of a sudden, they're not."

To find peace through her grief, Henkels shared that she tries to focus on living her life the way Saveena would want her to.

Knutson agreed.

"I learned so much from her," Knutson said of her friend. "She had love in her heart. She would always say, 'You just have to love people.'"

Love people, she did, and they loved her back. Saveena's loss is palpable in hearts and households across three counties. Her Dec. 30 funeral was livestreamed on the Dingmann Funeral Home and Cremation Services Facebook page so that all who wanted to could help celebrate her life from a distance.

"Every day, I thank God for bringing her into my life," Knutson said.