The COVID-19 pandemic is at the top of the news, but as the number of US deaths rises — currently upwards of 200,000 — there’s the danger of numbness setting in. One Los Angeles-based student, 13-year-old Madeleine Fugate, decided to fight that apathy. To honor the dead she is creating an ever-expanding project: the COVID Memorial Quilt.
“We see the number of people who have died on the news and the numbers keep going up and they become so big that it’s hard to understand,” Madeleine tells Parentology. “I want to remind everyone that each number is a real person with a family and friends who loved them and they will never be forgotten.”
Madeleine got the idea for the quilt from her mother, Katherine, who was involved 30 years ago in the creation of another quilt that honored those lost to the AIDS epidemic. Katherine never expected to live through another pandemic, much less having to guide her child through one, but Katherine saw her child’s horror grow as the family took in the news each day.
“When they said, ‘Numbers. The numbers tonight,’ It was just her face. I’ll never forget her face,” Katherine explains to Parentology. “It enraged her almost. Like, how come they keep calling them numbers?
“When she started the quilt, [the number of deaths] were at 71,000. And now it’s over 200,000. And that 200,000 is a person. Each one of those… That’s a person.”
Her outrage transformed into inspiration, and her concept gained support. Madeleine attends The Buckley School, which requires 7th graders to complete a Community Action Project. She decided to take her’s into the national arena.
Origin of the COVID-19 Quilt Project
Before COVID-19, there was AIDS, that infamous syndrome that has devastated communities from the early 1980s onward. The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt was created in 1985 and created an immediately impactful, varied, and palpable demonstration of the disease’s death toll.
In the forty years since AIDS was first diagnosed, 700,000 American lives, and a staggering 33 million lives worldwide, have been lost to the pandemic. The AIDS Memorial Quilt is now so large that it cannot be shown in public in its entirety; the 54-ton tapestry includes more than 48,000 panels dedicated to more than 100,000 individuals. One can, however, view it online, and even find individual squares dedicated to friends, family, and loved ones. It’s the largest community arts project in history.
Cleve Jones, who conceived of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt in 1985, heard about the COVID-19 Memorial Quilt and reached out to Madeleine directly. “I wanted to thank Madeleine personally for taking up the mantle and carrying on the tradition of remembrance,” Jones said in a press release. “I’m incredibly touched that a 13-year-old in 2020 is inspired by my work and activism in the 1980s.”
Dr. Thomas Raffin, the Board co-chair of the National AIDS Memorial, thinks the new quilt project is very fitting. “I think the idea of a COVID-19 Quilt will be important to the hundreds of thousands of families who lost loved ones, want to remember and honor them, and were not able to say good-bye,” Dr. Raffin told Parentology.
The COVID-19 Memorial Quilt Is Taking Submissions
Madeleine’s quilt project has already taken off. Submissions come in various forms: some as completed 8×8 quilt squares, some as photos, others as written essays and poetry. Scraps of fabric and textiles help make each square personal to the person who lost their life to the virus. And, the 8×8 size of the squares means that more of the quilt panels can be displayed at once. (The NAMES quilt had very large squares — about the size of a coffin).
“People have sent in constructed squares, but a few people who didn’t know how to sew all sent in t-shirts that represented the person to cut out and make the square out of. So they sent the t-shirt, we did the cutting,” Madeleine says.
Madeleine started sewing at age five; she learned from a great aunt. She and her dedicated volunteer team of fellow students, with her school’s textiles teacher as the head quilter, quilt a square for those who cannot sew. “[Everyone is] being very helpful. They’re helping us on social media, getting the word out. My textiles teacher at Buckley actually helps me make the quilt. She’s the official co-director. We gave her that fancy title,” Madeleine says.
The volunteers donate their time in exchange for snacks, pizza, and absolutely required (according to Madeleine) black and white cookies. This is not a money-making endeavor; there are no GoFundMe plans in its future.
The quilt’s smaller squares, arranged in panels of 25 each, are designed for display in public and private settings, for remembrance. Madeleine has received more than 70 submissions, but expects—unfortunately—many more to come.
Madeleine sees the quilt as one way for friends, family, and loved ones of the dead to grieve and heal. The project gives tangible evidence to the unimaginable disappearance of thousands of people.
‘There’s been no public mourning and there’s been no events, no flags at half staff. And even though we’re in a social distancing climate and a quarantine or a lockdown or whatever you want to call it, there are many ways we could be mourning and grieving the people we’ve lost and we just aren’t doing them. So I always think that’s up to the people now,” Katherine somberly concluded.