August 29, 2019
Restoring respect to a neglected cemetery one grave marker at a time
BY KATE MOSTACCIO
At first glance, it would have been easy to miss if you didn’t know it was there. But, hidden beneath the grass were sunken, flat grave markers that for years had been mowed over and barely cared for since the closing of Newark Developmental Center near Rochester.
Those markers and a few larger ones are all that stand as memorials for 744 individuals who had been receiving services at the facility when they died and were buried there.
Retired state worker Christine Krebbeks, a Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) member for 37 years, spearheaded an effort to clean up the long-neglected cemetery. Her brother-in-law, Jedd Hetherley, a PEF Division 246 member and habilitation specialist at Finger Lakes Developmental Disabilities Service Office (DDSO), said she had been working for a long time to organize the project.
It finally came together when she collaborated with Kevin Mooney at Newark Rotary Club 7120, which offered its umbrella insurance to cover volunteers and pave the way for state permission for the project. With the green light, Hetherley and his wife, Kimberly, also a PEF member, joined Krebbeks, quickly realizing the magnitude of what they were up against when they saw the state of things.
“It was in really rough shape,” Hetherley recalled. “A lot of the stones had sunken into the ground.” While the grass was periodically cut, Hetherley said mowing over the flat grave markers left many of them virtually hidden from view.
“We did a lot of hard labor,” Hetherley said. “I have a lot of respect for the people who showed up. There were a lot of retired people from the state, people I recognized. We did weed whacking and some mowing, but much of it had to be done by hand, down on your hands and knees.”
The 77 volunteers came together that sunny day in June and completed the labor-intensive work to give those buried in the cemetery the respect they deserve.
“There was a lot of camaraderie,” Hetherley said. “People showed teamwork and consideration for what we were doing. It was for a great cause. And that the state retirees came back to help, that was impressive. They still cared enough to come out and really work hard.”
Christine Krebbeks said in addition to the volunteers, a good number of employees from the 60s and 70s turned up at the event to share stories of the cemetery and their time at the Newark State School, even though they couldn’t help with the manual labor.
“They wanted to give their support and talk about what they knew about the cemetery,” she said.
Community turnout was greater than Krebbeks expected and PEF made a strong showing with Division 246 Council Leader Leisa Abraham arriving on site with supplies for volunteers and a lot of energy.
“Leisa Abraham was absolutely fantastic,” Krebbeks said. “I was totally floored when she came out and brought apples, water, granola bars. She worked from beginning to end. She was not only just a great support in doing the physical labor but in getting people going.
“I can’t say enough about it, to bring everything that she did, it was just tremendous on PEF’s part to have such good representation,” Krebbeks said. “It was really impressive to see PEF come through like that.”
Abraham said she saw news of the clean-up in the local newspaper and knew it was something the division wanted to support. “So many of our people had worked for the agency for the long haul and were familiar with the cemetery,” Abraham said. “Several PEF retirees who had left the state in the 70s and 80s showed up. These people were really familiar with the cemetery and had worked with the agency when it was still a viable place.”
Many of the retirees had heard about the event in church bulletins or by word of mouth, Abraham said. “I would have expected something at our place,” she said, referring to the Newark office of Fingers Lakes DDSO, “but I think they were running into so many problems with the state. I think if we would have known ahead of time, we would have been able to get more participation.”
Even so, they were able to provide what the Rotary and local businesses hadn’t procured or donated already. “We were more than grateful that we could help,” Abraham said.
Hetherley hopes this was just the beginning. “I felt good when it was done,” he said. “We all did a lot of hard work. It would be nice to keep it up.”
Krebbeks said the state has agreed to let them do another cleanup next year. The date has yet to be determined.
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