By Morgan Hume, Contributing writer
GRAFTON – It has been over a year since the coronavirus pandemic began. Millions of people around the world have been battling COVID-19. In Massachusetts alone, nearly 18,000 had died as of May 27.
Throughout this, Mike Labee has been honoring those lost by setting up a memorial right in his front yard off Keith Hill Road. Each American flag represents one person who has died from COVID-19 in Massachusetts.
“One for every soul taken from us here in Massachusetts,” Labee said in a recent interview. “There’s no race, no religion, no nothing. It’s every soul taken from us; they get a flag out there out of respect.”
Memorial begins in early 2020
Labee began building the memorial in March of last year, just as the first wave of the pandemic began to crash on the region. What started out as only a handful of flags has now grown.
Labee said he has volunteered in the past to help people affected by natural disasters, like Hurricane Katrina. A former first responder himself, he likes to be the one with his boots on the ground when tragedy strikes. But the pandemic was different because he had to keep his distance from others.
“Normally, I’m a hands-on person,” said Labee. “…But with coronavirus, you couldn’t be hands-on. So, my daughters and I as a family talked about it, ‘How can we pay it forward?’ And the best way was the flags.”
Display’s maintenance and expansion is a group effort
Not only is Labee busy planting new flags, but he is also maintaining the older ones that have become weathered over time. Labee, his family, and coworkers put up to 30 hours of labor into the memorial every week.
And every day, Labee is adding more flags to the growing display.
He recently built a wall that is 120 feet long and about 10 and a half feet tall to hold 12,000 more flags. It starts on his property and stretches into his neighbor’s property.
“They were totally on board with helping and they’ve been totally understanding,” Labee said. “All my neighbors have been tremendous.”
Visitors welcome at memorial
Visitors are welcome to stop by the memorial and take pictures.
It is meant to be a safe place for people to reflect and grieve. Labee says visitors experience a broad range of emotions when they come to the memorial, with some even opening up to him about what they are going through.
“The stories that we’ve listened to from victims and their families and their friends, I actually hugged some people, cried with some people, laughed with some people,” said Labee.
Memorial effort presses onward as COVID surge slows
Labee said building the memorial has felt like a mission. Although he is looking forward to the days when the pandemic is behind us, as of now, he has no plans of slowing down the display.
“Every flag is a soul. Every flag has a thousand plus stories. And that’s motivating us to keep going on it. That’s just true motivation,” he said.
Only time will tell for certain what our new normal will look like in the months and years to come. In the meantime, Labee is trying to stay optimistic about the future and is glad to see COVID-19 case numbers beginning to drop.
“We’re on a positive trend down, so it looks like we’re on the right track as far as getting back to some type of normalcy,” he said.