© Lisa SmithMadeleine Fugate displays her masterpiece
At just 13, Madeleine Fugate could feel her anger grow as she watched yet another TV news station reporting the numbers of COVID-19 cases rising in the United States last spring.
"They aren't just numbers - they are real people who had lives, jobs, families and friends, a pet," Madeleine, now 14, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue.
Her outrage led to a realization: "We have to remember them."
She began her COVID memorial quilt in April 2020 as her seventh-grade Community Action Project through Buckley School in Sherman Oaks, California. It has since exploded into an open-ended endeavor to record the worldwide losses to the ubiquitous virus.
Madeleine's mother Katherine Fugate provided the inspiration for the COVID quilt after telling her daughter about working on the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt 35 years ago.
"You had someone's actual shirt or jeans and that made them real to us," Katherine says. "That struck her how much we needed them to be recognized."
RELATED: The AIDS Quilt Comes Home: The Inside Story of a Memorial Sewn to Show America 'People Were Dying'
Madeleine and her mom began reaching out to people through social media, asking for submissions. Contributors could either send completed squares or materials for Madeleine to make the squares.
With the help of her textile class teacher Wendy Wells, Madeleine - who has been sewing since she was 5 - began constructing the panels with 25 commemorative squares, each measuring 8 inches wide by 8 inches long. The size is a symbol of infinity and, as Madeleine says, "that energy keeps going."
For more on Madeleine Fugate's mission to memorialize COVID-19 victims, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.
Each piece of fabric comes with a letter about the people behind the squares, recognizing one of the 384,804 lives, and counting, lost to COVID.
"Reading the letters made me realize who they were," Madeleine says.
Jay Bushman sent a square with an iron-on transfer photo of his father David, 76. It was made of his dad's T-shirt that featured stirring words from his favorite Star Trek episode: "Make now always the most precious time. Now will never come again."
"My father was the kindest person I've ever known," says Jay, 48.
The episode, from the Star Trek: The Next Generation series, is "about family, community and loss - and about how if someone is remembered, they will never be truly gone," says Jay.
Two side-by-side panel squares represent Betty Oshiro, of Paramount, California, and her son Eric, of Mirada, California. He caught the virus from her, and they died at 89 and 61, respectively.
Lori Oshiro, Eric's wife, also caught COVID from her mother-in-law but survived. She hopes the quilt will help people remember times when the country came together during a crisis.
"I go back to 9/11, when everyone turned to each other," says Lori. "It was not Democrat or Republican, it was the United States as one." © Provided by PeopleCourtesy Katherine Fugate Among the 250-plus squares submitted so far: a remembrance of Paul "Buddy" Gibbs Jr., a mechanic and father of three who died April 16.
"The White House, the people in different states and communities - everyone came together and there was no division," Lori adds. "So I hope what this quilt project does, like the AIDS Quilt did, is bring people together by showing people's grief, anger and despair in one beautiful piece of art."
So far Madeleine has stitched more than 125 squares into five large quilt panels that she hopes to have displayed around the country - one is already promised to an upcoming exhibit at L.A.'s California Science Center.
Click here for information on submitting squares for other victims of COVID.
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