Award-winning photographer Harper Bella stands in front of her Flower...

Award-winning photographer Harper Bella stands in front of her Flower of Honor mural project featuring pandemic heroes in Wyandanch. Credit: Morgan Campbell

In the early days of the pandemic, as Black and Latino communities were being disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus, Harper Bella knew she had to do something.

“I wanted to show something different, something positive. I wanted to find a way to use my professional skills to uplift people in some small way,” said Bella, an Amityville resident in her early 30s.

An award-winning fine art photographer and curator for the Babylon Citizens Council on the Arts, Bella embarked on what would become the Flower of Honor project, photographing more than 30 people who lived or worked in the predominantly Black and Latino hamlet of Wyandanch and who she said helped the community during the pandemic, which began four years ago.

Those photographed included members of the volunteer Wyandanch-Wheatley Heights Ambulance Corps, a Target employee and a local barber.

Bella said the name of the project was inspired by the U.S. government’s top military award, the Medal of Honor.

This past summer, several of the men and women highlighted in the project were commemorated on a mural in the center of town, at 1500A Straight Path. Unveiled on June 9, 2023, it will remain up through 2028.

“I was inspired by the people who were doing the work that was necessary to keep things going during COVID — the store clerks, sanitation workers, mail carriers, the line men doing pole work. They risked their lives,” Bella said.

I wanted to show something different, something positive. I wanted to find a way to use my professional skills to uplift people in some small way.

-Harper Bella 

At first, she said some in the community were skeptical. “Some thought I would be making a lot of money off the project,” said Bella, who received about $20,000 in grant funding from the Huntington Arts Council, the nonprofit Town of Babylon L.D. Corporation II and other groups. She said she also used her own money.

Bella said she met with community representatives and Babylon Town Council members to drum up support for the mural.

“Some people were excited, others perplexed because they weren’t clear on what I was hoping to do,” said Bella, who ultimately got the town’s approval to proceed.

Finding a suitable location took about six months, she said. By the time the mural was unveiled, she said she felt the community had embraced her vision.

“The pride and joy exhibited by the community was palpable,” she said. “It was a deeply moving experience to witness.”

Babylon Deputy Supervisor Tony Martinez, who attended the ceremony, commended Bella for her work.

“The Flower of Honor mural commemorates our local essential workers who helped keep our community thriving amid the COVID-19 crisis, with the aim of shedding light on the impact of inequity,” he said. “The town was proud to support this project and hope that the great work done by artist Harper Bella continues to brighten hearts in Wyandanch.”

Ambulance volunteer

One of the first groups Bella photographed was the Wyandanch-Wheatley Heights Ambulance Corps.

“Wyandanch was hit hard, and they had a high volume of calls. They were overwhelmed because they didn’t have enough manpower,” Bella recalled. “I was moved by one of the volunteers who had lost two family members to COVID and yet kept smiling and volunteering. I was struck by the volunteers’ sense of purpose.”

One of them was Sherry Browne.

Sherry Browne stands in front of the Flower of Honor...

Sherry Browne stands in front of the Flower of Honor mural photo depicting female menbers of the Wyandanch-Wheatley Heights Ambulance Corps. Credit: Rick Kopstein

Browne, a lieutenant with the corps during the pandemic, said she often worked about 200 hours a month — an average of 50 hours per week, or double what she logged pre-pandemic.

“I was constantly out there, I was working remotely full time from home because of the pandemic so I had the flexibility to do more,” said Browne, 57, of Wyandanch. A special education teacher at Lafrancis Hardiman Elementary School in the hamlet, Browne first volunteered with the corps from 1996 to 2000 and then returned in 2017. She was promoted to captain in December 2023.

During the pandemic, Browne said she was responsible for making sure all of the corps’ vehicles were fully stocked. She recounted going to the scene before the ambulance to gather essential information like what the patient needed and whether she or he had COVID-19. One of the toughest parts of the job, she said, was having to tell people they could not be transported to the hospital.

In March 2020, the state Department of Health’s Bureau of Emergency Medical Services issued a triage protocol to determine who should be taken to the hospital. Under the protocol, patients who were younger than 65, had COVID symptoms and did not have certain comorbidities like diabetes would not be transported.

“You have to stay home and quarantine, the hospital is overrun,” Browne remembers telling patients. “I felt like I was abandoning them.”

Volunteer shortages were common and the company at times called on other ambulance corps from Dix Hills and Deer Park to assist. “Some of our volunteers opted to stay home during COVID. It was understandable,” Browne said.

But Browne chose to keep working, despite the sickness and death she saw every day.

“What stays in my memory is going to the homes and seeing people who were deceased. There was a lot of that happening during COVID,” she said.

She said she empathized with the pain of the loved ones left behind, as her own sister, 48, died of COVID. “Seeing others lose their family too was hard,” she said.

There were times when she said she had to take a moment and cry, talk to God, to try to get clarity. “I had to stay strong for my team, family, my friends,” said Browne, who has three grown children and is guardian of a 13-month-old child.

What bolstered her, she said, was focusing on the good she and her fellow volunteers were doing for the community.

“I like to give back. We help save lives,” she said. “Over all the years I’ve volunteered, I helped save more than 10 people.”

Four years after the pandemic started, Browne said she has learned to cherish her loved ones and friends, and to be kind to everyone. “You don’t know when it will be the last time you see or speak to someone,” she said.

And Browne said she’s healing, slowly, from the trauma of those dark days. “I still hurt, especially when I think of my sister and visit a church and see a new pastor because the previous one died of COVID.”

She’s honored to be part of the Flower of Honor project. “Someone saw it before I did and when I went to see it, it was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s me.’ I appreciate Harper for what she did.”

Master barber

Also featured on the mural is Pedro Vides, who has worked at Sir Shave Barber Parlor in Wyandanch since 2018.

The master barber, 37, of Wyandanch, said the shop was forced to shut down for three months, reopening in June 2020. However, business remained limited, with barbers only allowed to cut hair. Shaving facial hair was not yet permitted at the time.

Pedro Vides, a master barber at the Sir Shave Barber...

Pedro Vides, a master barber at the Sir Shave Barber Parlor in Wyandanch, said he lost customers to COVID during the pandemic. Credit: Rick Kopstein

As shaves are a big part of the shop’s business, Vides said the shop’s owner, Keith Banks, sent a letter to then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, asking to be able to resume shaving people’s faces.

“It was the only way to get our business back to normal. We were suffering financially doing the right thing,” Vides said.

By the fall of 2020, Vides said the shaving restriction was lifted and the barber shop was able to once again offer its full suite of services. He remembers being outfitted in face shields and masks as protection against COVID. It was a dark time.

“I lost customers I was close to,” Vides said. “I appreciate my time with customers more now. I realize I could die tomorrow, or they could.”

Vides has enjoyed the buzz about the mural. “I’ve had a lot of customers who’ve seen it tell me they are proud of me, that it’s their barber up there. It’s a blessing to be on the mural, but I don’t think I did enough during COVID.”

The mural is also a point of pride for his wife and two sons. For his part, Vides said he simply did what he has always done — tried to give his customers the best service. Vides said his brother will soon visit from Minnesota, and the first thing he plans to do is see the mural.

Store sales associate

Jeremy King, a sales associate at the Target store in Farmingdale, said the memories of long days and working almost daily are still fresh.

Even when the store was required to close, it still offered curbside pickup. There were shortages of paper towels, grocery items and toilet tissue. When people were again permitted to shop in the store, he said there were long lines wrapped around the building because only so many customers were allowed to shop in the store at a time. Some customers were tense, as they might have driven an hour to the store because they couldn’t find needed items closer to home.

Left: Jeremy King worked at Target as a sales associate...

Left: Jeremy King worked at Target as a sales associate during the pandemic. Right: King is among the men and women whose photos are featured on a mural at 1500A Straight Path in Wyandanch.

“It was extremely stressful,” recalled King, 34, of Wyandanch.

King said his parents, with whom he lives, encouraged him to stick it out at work. “My family kept me going, as did my faith. My father would pray for me before I left the house,” he said.

He said he lost customers and recounted the painful day he learned of a customer’s death: “I was in shock. My body froze. I went in the bathroom and cried.”

Reflecting on the lessons of that time, King said, “I don’t take anything for granted — not the family gatherings, the chance to tell someone you love them — because you just never know. I remember that people and things can be taken away from us.”

King said he is honored to be featured in the Flower of Honor project. “People come up to me in the store and tell me they saw me on the wall. I am humbled.”

And despite all the heartache of the pandemic, King said it has produced one benefit: It brought the people of Wyandanch closer together. “We’re friendlier, more loving to each other,” he said.

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