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This Girl Scout is remembering 5,000 lives lost to COVID-19 as Kansas inches toward grim milestone



TOPEKA, Kan. – On the day of her junior prom, Anna Newcome woke up early, loaded several boxes into trucks and drove over to the Kansas Statehouse with friends, family and other volunteers to plant one felt-fabric rose for each of the 5,000 Kansans killed by COVID-19.

For her Girl Scout Gold Award leadership project, Newcome had committed to organizing Kansas’s installment of the national Rose River Memorial, a project by international artist Marcos Lutyens to honor each life lost to COVID-19.

Newcome, a junior at Topeka West, had first started planning the project about four months ago, holding Zoom conferences and sending emails to people and organizations across the state who would help her realize the ambitious project.

The original draft of the project called for 4,000 roses for 4,000 lives, but Newcome had to revise that to 5,000 when Kansas passed 4,000 deaths in February.

And while COVID-19 deaths have slowed to fractions of the waves Kansas saw over the winter, the state — with 4,982 confirmed deaths from COVID-19 reported as of Friday — is still on pace to reach 5,000 deaths in the coming week.

“It was a weird feeling — knowing that I was about to start on this big project that could help other people,” Newcome said. “Other people can come out here and see this project and reflect over their own grief if they’ve lost anyone in their lives.

They are attention-grabbing, and Newcome said she intentionally picked this weekend to install the project ahead of the state Legislature’s return for the veto session. Legislators like Reps. Lindsay Vaughn and Linda Featherston helped Newcome arrange for the project, and Featherston on Saturday even volunteered and helped install roses on the north Statehouse lawn.

“It’s a striking sight, and it’s a reminder of what the state has suffered,” Featherston said. “I hope other legislators take a minute to reflect on all of the souls who have gone, and the families they’ve left behind.”

Mary Middleton, a friend of Newcome’s family who has taught her and her siblings at French Middle School, was especially moved to help Newcome with the project, having lost her mother to COVID-19.

She said she has been unable to hold a proper funeral for her mother, and the rose installation is a way for her and other Kansans to honor everyone who has died the past year.

“I hope it’s a way for them to close out their grief in more of a positive way,” Middleton said. “Even though all of these people have passed, we can still remember them in a beautiful way.”

As the cumulative symbol of her 12 years of experiences in Girl Scouts, Newcome showed great leadership in pulling together and organizing the logistics behind the rose project, said Tracy Hull, manager of civic engagement and teen leadership for the Girl Scouts of NE Kansas and NW Missouri.

Overseeing Gold Awards for girls across the entire council, Hull said Newcome’s project was especially unique as a project to show respect and grief for the past year of difficulties.

“This is exactly what a Gold Award is,” Hull said. “It is about identifying a problem in the community, and working in that community to see a solution all the way through.”

Reflecting on her years as a Girl Scout and on the rose project, Newcome stopped to reflect on the lives that each rose represented.

“Visually, it hits you to see just how many roses there are,” she said. “It overwhelms you.”

The rose memorial will be on display on the north end of the Statehouse through May 14. After that, the roses will be sent to Kansas City for display later in the summer as part of a regional memorial, and later in St. Louis as part of the national project in 2022.