Flamboyant outfits and dancing in the street for the late sixth-grader Madeline "Maddie" Barton.
NAPLES — The air may have been cold. And the sky over Naples was gray.
But only warmth and brightness radiated from the community members who gathered in town Saturday.
They gathered for “Maddie Gras” — a celebration of the life of Madeline "Maddie" Barton, a sixth-grader from the Naples Central School District who died Feb. 8 after a battle with the flu.
Vibrant. Full of life. Imaginative. Flamboyant. Energetic.
Just ask anyone who knew Maddie to describe her, and those are the kinds of responses you’ll get. And, in Maddie's honor, those were the key elements to Saturday's celebration — loving life and having fun, just like the 11-year-old would have.
“We wanted a celebration instead of some sort of solemn commemoration,” said Maddie’s uncle Rick Baker. “I think this is it.”’
Naples seventh-grader Owen Gentner and his mother Erin Gentner lived next door to Maddie. Owen remembers Maddie, a bit of a farm girl, chasing chickens and bouncing on the trampoline.
“She had a great sense of humor,” Erin Gentner said. “A real quirky girl.”
That was displayed in the “fabulous Maddie leggings” Gentner sported on Saturday. She pointed out the bright blue color that weaves into the pattern on the leggings. That color is now known as “Maddie Blue” by those in the community, Gentner said.
“She was very riotous in her fashion choices, I would say,” she added. “She would mix all sorts of fun stuff.”
Before the Maddie Gras 2017 parade began, those who attended had a chance to go inside the Naples High School and peruse tables lined with colorful masks, beads, hats, noisemakers and other items to pass out to anyone who wanted them.
As the parade worked around the block, starting on Academy Street outside the district's schools, Naples school musicians played, “When the Saints Go Marching In." People standing on the sidewalk jumped in and marched along the parade route.
Tad Barton, Maddie's father, rode on his daughter’s bicycle, tossing beads into the crowd while wearing a bright purple hat and crown, and a lively purple suit to match.
“We’re all here for each other throughout all of this,” Tad Barton said. “It speaks to the character of the community."
Siobhan Baker, Maddie’s aunt, described Saturday’s event as uplifting.
“It’s been a month and a half of missed time,” she said. “Just a haze."
“It's nice to come out of that bubble of grief and dance around,” Rick Baker added.
Members of the Trinity Federated Church, where Maddie was heavily involved, also participated in the event. Maddie, with other volunteers at the church, helped cook meals for those in need around the community, according to church member Pat Peck.
“She was an angel on earth,” Peck said, pointing out she knew the blue-eyed, blonde-haired Maddie since she was a baby.
When Peck found out about the soon-to-be 12-year-old’s death, she said it didn’t seem real.
“It still isn’t,” Peck said.
Maddie is one of seven children who have died this flu season because of influenza-related illness, according to the state Department of Health. That’s two more deaths than counted in the 2015-16 flu season.
Through the tragedy has come solace.
Siobhan pointed out that the family has been flooded with letters of love following her niece’s death. Many came from classmates, describing a girl who cared and just wanted others to be happy. The heartfelt letters continue to trickle in.
“No matter who was down, she was there,” Siobhan said. “No matter who was sad, she’d cheer them up."
For Tad, the hope is that the togetherness felt on Saturday is not an isolated event, that other parents and family who have gone through what he and the rest of his family have experienced with Maddie also get to feel the warmth of the love of others.
“I’m not the only parent in this boat,” Tad said. “As unfortunate as that is, there are others who have suffered the same that I have. If we could keep doing this, because it’s fun, and then we can keep honoring, not only Madeline, but everyone who has lost a child.”