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Faces of COVID victims: a 15-year-old's mission to memorialize missed loved ones

Inspired by her late grandfather, Hannah Ernst is on a mission to draw victims of the virus from all around the world.

Personalized tattoos, commemorative gardens, and yellow hearts are a few ways families have memorialized those who’ve lost their battle against COVID-19. One New Jersey girl has found her own way to remember these lives, by drawing portraits of missed loved ones from across the country.

“My grandpa was everything to me,” said 15-year-old Hannah Ernst. “Knowing how he passed, and not being able to have been there with him, it's definitely something that's taken a toll on all of us.”

When she lost her grandfather to the virus in May, Ernst found comfort in art. She said she inherited her artistic abilities from her grandfather, who was also an artist.

She made a portrait of him, posing in front of a yellow heart, and shared it with friends and family.

“She just flipped the iPad around and said, ‘Here, Mom, look at what I did of grandpa’. And I was blown away,” said Karen Ernst, Hannah’s mother.

Credit: Hannah Ernst

Ernst decided she wanted to offer free digital portraits to other families who have lost loved ones to the virus. She and her mother turned to COVID-19 support groups on Facebook to see if there was any interest. In less than 24 hours, Ernst’s project went global.

“I'm getting messages exponentially greater than I could have ever anticipated,” Ernst said. “It’s definitely bittersweet, because a part of me understands how important it is to families, because it's differentiating a person from the sea of numbers that we've become so used to.”

Ernst said the saddest part is the sheer number of requests, representing the incredible impact the virus has had on so many lives.

To share her work, she created a Facebook page called, "Faces of Covid Victims." Along with each portrait, she shares a snippet about each person’s life.

The portrait that inspired them all, her grandfather, is pinned to the top of the page. The caption reads, “Cal Schoenfeld, 83. My grandpa. Brooklyn Boy through and through and the best grandpa I could have ever asked for. Leaves behind my grandma, my mom, my uncle, and four grandchildren, including myself.”

"I'm trying to, like, put light to the fact that these are legitimate people, and not just numbers that are increasing,” Ernst explained.

She said she hopes the sea of faces serves as both a memorial, and a message.

“Although these numbers are increasing, and the mortality is low, I think that people should still have that compassion that we did at the beginning, where these are lives," she said. "These are legitimate families that are being ruined. And I'm hoping that the faces I draw and memorialize help show people visually the impact that this virus has had on our country."