Andres, Jose and Carlos. Maria, Estrella and Marta. The names go on and on.
They worked in grocery stores and in hospitals. As community activists and as food service workers.
Some were grandparents. Others young adults with infant children. They were brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. Almost all of Hispanic descent.
They are some of the 57 names and faces adorning Candlelights for a Cure, an online memorial honoring the COVID-19 victims of the heavily Hispanic Suffolk County communities of Bay Shore, Brentwood and Central Islip.
Alicia Figueras-Lambert of Bay Shore created the website and Facebook page in January to honor the pandemic victims from the surrounding neighborhoods and to provide a place where the community can mourn together as one.
“It’s very touching for me,” said Figueras-Lambert, a real estate agent and part-time massage therapist who also runs a nonprofit that helps the children of incarcerated people. “It makes me feel good that I am able to give comfort to a family through this little effort.”
The Suffolk communities were among the hardest hit by the pandemic, with data showing that more than 1 in every 5 residents of Brentwood and Central Islip have tested positive for COVID-19 since March 2020, while the rate is nearly 16% in Bay Shore, according to state Health Department figures.
Meanwhile, the vaccination rate in the three hamlets is lower than the average rate for Suffolk at large, data shows.
Figueras-Lambert, whose father is from Puerto Rico and whose mother is from Curacao, said her communities felt underrepresented in memorials honoring COVID-19 victims across the state.
Earlier this year, she began distributing postcards in English, Spanish and Creole promoting the online memorial, relying on help from Moloney Funeral Home, which handled the services for many of the victims, and the Central Islip-based Youth Enrichment Services (YES) program, which notified its members of the initiative.
Within days, residents began submitting names, photos and short bios of their loved ones. In July, Figueras-Lambert hosted a candlelight vigil in Central Islip attended by more than 200 residents.
“It was very emotional,” said Figueras-Lambert, who is planning another vigil in April. “You could tell by the looks on their faces that they wanted more. They didn’t want to leave. They were just so present.”
For Figueras-Lambert, the effort is personal.
Her brother-in-law, Clarence Lambert, of Queens, succumbed to COVID-19 in April 2020. Her sister, niece and two other brothers-in-law recovered after contracting the virus.
Peter Moloney, co-owner of Moloney Funeral Home in Central Islip, said during the worst days of the pandemic only a handful of family members were allowed to mourn together for fear of spreading the virus.
“There were so many people left out on their own who did not have the support they needed during the time of COVID and during their time of loss,” he said. “Candlelights for a Cure really allows for the community, and for those that experienced a loss, to come together and have a sense of comfort. So when we can come together and bring together a group of people that have shared a similar experience, they know that they are not alone. It’s certainly part of the healing process.”
MaryAnn Pfeiffer, chief executive officer of the YES program, said the three communities saw rapid spread of the virus in part because they’re home to a large number of essential workers.
“It’s vital to remember them,” said Pfeiffer, who lost a 37-year-old cousin to COVID-19. “These were community leaders of color that were passing away. Here are these salt of the Earth people that do a lot of the jobs that many of us don’t even consider as a career path. And yet where are their names? Where are they memorialized?”
Uma Bassant of Central Islip submitted a picture to the memorial of her father, Dindyal Kanhai, who died of complications from COVID-19 in January.
Kanhai, a retired security guard, was one of seven members of his household to contract the virus, including his wife, children and four-year-old grandson.
But Kanhai, a father of four who was on dialysis with a kidney disease, died within five days of his diagnosis.
Bassant said the memorial has created an important platform for community comfort.
“It’s nice that they brought together the communities of Brentwood, Bay Shore and Central Islip,” she said. “Just to see so many families in the same boat as us is nice.”
Visit Candlelights for a Cure at candlelightsforacure.org.