COVID-19 has taken a toll on everyone. Though self-quarantining is no longer the norm and it has been a while since people started going back to work, there are still an incalculable number of people that have been affected by the disease or have lost loved ones to it.
Sandie Nagel lost her dear friend Susan Mazer, whom she often called mi hermana (Spanish for “my sister”) in September of 2021, and was looking for a way to honor her memory. The two had volunteered to help make the National AIDS Memorial Quilt in the past, a massive art project in which every square of the quilt represents lives lost due to AIDS.
Their time working on the National AIDS Memorial Quilt was what inspired Nagel to create the National COVID-19 Quilt. The first square, honoring 12 victims and one survivor, was dedicated on Oct. 19 at Grey Rock Mansion in Pikesville, Md.
An honor guard of four first responders and medical staff carried the first square of the quilt into the mansion, displaying it for all to see. The event was attended by loved ones of the victims with panels created in their names and various members of the community.
“There are four dreaded ideas all my friends hate to hear me say,” said Nagel. “And that’s ‘I have an idea.’ ”
There was a push for Congress to create a quilt with the COVID-19 Memorial Quilt Act of 2020. The act was brought before the Committee on House Administration and the Committee on Education and Labor, but was struck down twice.
“This 85-year-old grandma did what Congress couldn’t,” quipped Nagel.
The quilt was not Nagel’s first experience with creating a nonprofit organization. She is also the founder of Weekend Backpacks, which delivers food to homeless families to last them over the weekend. Many homeless children depend on the lunch programs at their schools to eat, and they lack that support when school is not in session.
The COVID-19 Quilt was first planned in early 2022 with families who lost loved ones to the disease reaching out to Nagel from across the country. Residents of four states are represented on the first square: people from Florida, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Maryland.
“Ten months ago, the COVID quilt was just a dream,” said Nagel in a speech at the dedication. “Today, it’s a reality.”
The quilt is sponsored by Miriam Lodge, a 150-year-old Jewish women’s organization in Baltimore and one of the oldest Jewish organizations in the state. They also help sponsor Nagel’s Weekend Backpacks program.
As of the day of the dedication, 1,062,130 people in the United States have died of COVID-19, with 429 dying in the past three weeks alone. Nagel’s goal is to add 160 more squares to the quilt, each consisting of 12 individual panels.
‘Panels show who people really are’
Nagel and others involved with the quilt’s creation are working with the National Park Services to have the expanded quilt displayed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in spring of 2023 and every year thereafter, like the National AIDS Memorial Quilt that preceded it. The quilt’s website also serves as a repository for the stories of people listed on the quilt, serving as a living library for those lost to the novel coronavirus.
“We want to memorialize the people who died and be happy for the people who survived,” said Carol Marder, one of the associate curators of the quilt. She noted a panel belonging to Russell Livingston, a devoted Boston sports fan whose relatives put the logos of his favorite sports teams on his panel. “This has so much meaning to his relatives, that people will know him through this panel.”
A panel belonging to Michael Green, who survived his battle with COVID even though the doctor who treated him, Joe Costa, did not, was created both to honor Dr. Costa’s memory and celebrate Green’s triumph over the disease.
“These panels show who the people really are, and what was important to them and their families,” said Marder.
Anyone is allowed to contribute a panel to the quilt, free of charge, to honor a family member or friends who has passed or has been affected by COVID-19. Instructions for how to create a quilt panel are listed on the organization’s website at: www.nationalcovid19quilt.com.
Nagel is hoping that the quilt will live on long after she is gone and has taken to calling younger volunteers on the project “the keepers of the quilt.”
“I am very proud to pass this to a younger generation,” she said. “I hope that you all take your children and grandchildren to see the quilt on the National Lawn someday as keepers of the quilt.”