FORT COLLINS, Colo. (AP) — Rounding the corner of Sara Steen’s Fort Collins home, walkers, cyclists and passers-by are greeted with dozens of circles.
Roughly the size of small dinner plates, each one boasts a different color scheme and, at their center, a small stick-figure person.
There are 63 total, with each one representing 63 people in Larimer County who had died from COVID-19 as of Nov. 14 — the last time Steen updated the handmade memorial.
And following an act of vandalism that led Steen’s neighbors to rally around and rebuild the memorial earlier this month, Steen said the circles also represent something else now: her community.
Steen started working on the memorial’s first iteration a few months ago.
“I just spent a lot of September feeling sad that people weren’t talking more about the people who were dying (of COVID-19),” Steen said, adding that at that point, deaths were reaching large milestones both nationally and closer to home.
“I felt like I wanted a way to personally acknowledge them.”
In mid-September, Larimer County marked its 50th death related to COVID-19. Since then, there have been an additional 17 deaths linked to the virus, bringing Larimer County’s latest COVID-19 death toll to 69 people as of Wednesday, according to the county’s health department.
The U.S. has surpassed 250,000 COVID-related deaths, and more than 1.3 million have been reported globally.
Steen, a sociologist, said she wanted a way to visually represent the hole the virus was leaving in our community.
She started by cutting out small posterboard circles and drawing the figure of a person in the middle of each. She made 50 — as well as a sign explaining the project — then laminated and posted them all on the sidewalk-facing section of her backyard fence in the Parkwood East neighborhood northwest of the intersection of Drake and Timberline roads.
After putting up the memorial, Steen said she heard many people stopping at it while she was in her backyard.
“I heard a lot of ‘Oh my goshes,’” Steen said, adding that through the month of October, many people also stopped by to thank Steen for erecting the small memorial.
“Other people were having the same feeling I had been feeling,” she said, adding that she wanted the memorial to serve as just a visual reminder, not a political message.
“I think people just get kind of inured to the numbers,” she said.
But on the morning of Nov. 5, Steen said she walked outside to see the opposite of a thank-you.
The previous night or earlier that morning, someone had vandalized the memorial by marring each circle with streaks of black spray paint.
“Honestly, I kind of just curled up on the sidewalk,” Steen said. “It just made me so sad someone would choose to do that.”
“But then, once the vandalism happened, we had so many people come by . . . they came to the door to say, ‘Sorry that happened, what can we do?’” Steen said. “I really quickly realized that we needed to rebuild it.”
Steen posted a new sign to the fence announcing plans to start the memorial over again. She asked any interested neighbors to craft new circle emblems as replacements, and many did just that — dropping off newly designed circles at Steen’s home.
One neighbor volunteered to laminate the new circles and another spent hours cleaning the paint off of Steen’s original emblems.
By Nov. 15, Steen said the memorial had been fully rebuilt, featuring 63 handmade emblems representing a COVID-19 death in Larimer County. The emblems are now a mix of Steen’s original emblems that had been cleaned and 36 emblems that had been submitted to her by neighbors.
Steen plans to keep updating the memorial to reflect the county’s COVID-19 deaths, she said.
“Now it feels like much more of a community memorial,” Steen said. “It’s just beautiful . . . I’m so grateful to be in this community. I’m not dwelling on the vandalism piece.”
Aside from the emblems, a new sign is posted with the memorial noting the number of people who had died from COVID-19 in Colorado, the United States and across the world as of Nov. 14.
Other small emblems adorn the fence, too. One shows a drawing of a water lily. Another says “Rest in Peace,” with the image of a rose.
And at the center, there’s a poem tacked to the fence — an excerpt from Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Dirge Without Music.”
“Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave/Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind,” it reads. “Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave./I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.”