More than 120 yellow paper hearts bearing the names of loved ones lost to COVID-19 were displayed on the windows surrounding the entrance to the Queens College Benjamin Rosenthal Library in Flushing on Wednesday, April 13.
Those who were honored during the ceremony ranged from family and friends of college community members to faculty, staff and alumni at Queens College’s Yellow Heart Memorial event held outside at Cooperman Plaza in front of the library. Names of the deceased were read aloud after the college’s jazz ensemble performed a musical selection.
“There may be no place on the face of the globe that has been more affected by COVID than Queens,” said Queens College President Frank Wu. “Almost everyone associated with Queens College, everyone in this borough of ours, in this community, has lost someone special in their lives or they know someone who has suffered such a loss because of this pandemic.”
The Yellow Heart Memorial is an initiative sponsored by the eponymous nonprofit organization that aims to acknowledge those who died from COVID not as statistics, but as beloved family members, friends and colleagues; their names or pictures are placed on individual yellow paper hearts and displayed in a common area.
Queens College is the first college in New York state and the second in the nation to hold such a memorial.
The event was spearheaded by two students — sisters Jessica and Danielle Alejandro — in memory of their grandfather Joseph Anthony Szalkiewicz, who died from complications of COVID-19 in March of 2021.
Like so many who were separated from their loved ones during the pandemic, the Alejandros bid goodbye to “the heart of their family” over FaceTime shortly before his death. Both sisters are pursuing education degrees.
“We are here today to never allow our loved ones to become just a number in this COVID-19 pandemic,” Jessica said. “They fought tough battles alone in those hospitals and we will never allow anyone to forget their names, their battles and anything they have experienced. We will make this our mission to not only keep our papa’s memory alive, but all of your loved ones’ memories alive as well.”
Gerry Brostek told a story of losing his father Joseph Brostek to COVID-19.
“After Dad died, we received messages of condolence from so many Queens College people, some who we knew and others we had no idea who they were, but they felt that they wanted to express their condolence and love for our dad,” Brostek said.
Rosie Davis, who lost her mother to COVID at the start of the pandemic, shared how it motivated her to start the Yellow Heart Memorial. The memorial currently has 12 national chapters and one international chapter.
“My family, like so many others, couldn’t have the celebration of life that we deserved, so I turned my grief into action and I thought, ‘How am I going to let the world know what a wonderful person my mom is?’” Davis said. “That’s how the Yellow Heart Memorial was created — out of grief, out of heartbreak. I never realized that there were thousands of people who needed what I needed.”
During the ceremony, Davis presented the Alejandro sisters with the Yellow Heart Memorial “Golden Heart Award.”
As the New York City team leads for Yellow Heart Memorial, the sisters will help host the second annual COVID March to Remember — a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge — on Saturday, Aug. 6. They are also working with Senator Joseph Addabbo to create a permanent Yellow Heart Memorial to honor New York City residents lost to COVID.
Queens Borough President Donovan Richards said the 10,106 Queens residents lost to COVID-19 are more than a statistic.
“They are our parents, our spouses, grandparents, siblings, children, workers, friends and neighbors. We must continue to be vigilant and inspire those around us while continuing to cherish and hold the memories of our loved ones close and at the forefront of the work we do,” Richards said. “Their memories are not lost in vain as we emerge out of this pandemic with the goal of continuing to keep those close to us safe.”
Additional reporting by Paul Frangipane.