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Group to raise banners honoring Holyoke Soldiers Home veterans who died during COVID-19 outbreak

This May 2018 file photo shows an aerial view of the Holyoke Soldiers' Home in Holyoke, Mass. The superintendent of the veteran's home was removed from his duties Monday, March 30, 2020 after several residents died, including some who had tested positive for COVID-19 and others whose results are pending. (Patrick Johnson / The Republican file/TNS)

Tracy Haradon Balint recalled how much her father enjoyed the Holyoke Heroes Banner raised along a well-traveled city street to recognize his years of service in the U.S. Marines Corps.

Now she and a group of volunteers hope to honor more than 100 residents from the Holyoke Soldiers Home who died this spring and summer when the coronavirus spread unchecked through the facility, infecting about 75% of the veterans who lived there.

“We wanted to do something nice for them,” said Balint, a Springfield optometrist. “With all the pain these families have gone through we thought it would be a nice way to honor the veterans.

The city began the Hometown Heroes program about two years ago to honor veterans in the city. Friends and family can thank veterans by erecting a banner with their name, photograph and branch of service. The banners, which cost $80, are placed on poles along Cherry Street, Beech Street and Resnic Boulevard, said Jesus Pereira, Holyoke veterans services director.

The price covers the printing of the banners and the Holyoke Gas & Electric employees hang them on the poles at no cost. The tributes remain up for a year and then are awarded to the veteran or the family of the honoree, he said.

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“They have been well received,” he said. Last year between 50 and 60 people applied to honor a veteran and most of them are down now.

Balint said her father, Warren Haradon, was touched by the gesture and it was made more special because her family gathered together to celebrate when it was raised. He was a Vietnam veteran and served in the U.S. Marines from 1962-1966. He is now retired after a long career working at U.S. Tsubaki.

The project, Honoring Our Heroes on the Holyoke Hill, is being organized by a small group of city natives led by Balint, Carolyn Rogers-Harris and Scott Meyer, owner of G Street Vinyl who prints the banners for the Hometown Heroes program. They are hoping to find sponsors for some of the banners and set up a GoFuneMe account to raise the remaining money.

The group has a goal of raising about $10,000 and has raised about $1,560 without publicizing the effort. About 103 veterans died during the outbreak. Although 76 are identified as having died of COVID-19, the group would like to honor all of the residents who died during that time, Balint said.

The disease ravaged the home starting in late March killing the 76 veterans and forcing many to resign or be fired including Superintendent Bennett Walsh and Francisco Urena, director of the state Veterans Services Department. Investigations led to the indictments of Walsh and Dr. David Clinton, the medical director, who have each been charged with 10 criminal counts.

The members are also working to contact all the families of the veterans to receive permission to raise the banners before going forward, she said.

“We want them to be remembered as great vets and not just COVID-19 casualties,” Balint said.

The group has met with Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Coalition, a grassroots network lobbying for the expansion and renovation of the home that will modernize the building, Balint said.

Members are hoping to raise all the banners around the same time but are not sure when it will happen yet, she said.

People interested in donating to the Honoring Our Heroes can go to the GoFundMe page at https://www.gofundme.com/f/honoring-our-heroes-on-the-hill.

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(c) 2020 The Republican

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