One Saturday in 1999, my friend and neighbor, Lee Anderson, asked me to help her cut grass in the area of her dad’s grave at a Wilmington cemetery. Now, I can look back on that day as the beginning of my 14 years (and counting) of volunteer service at Riverview Cemetery.
I had no idea where my first volunteer effort would lead. One Saturday led to more Saturdays as we joined other families. Over time, we heard about neglect at the cemetery on every level. Lee, who had just published a book of oral history about Riverview Cemetery, began discussions to secure the cemetery. She had a great deal of trust that doors would open and people would support the efforts to care for the cemetery.
In 2008, Friends of Historic Riverview Cemetery (FHRC) a 501c3 non-profit organization was born out of the frustration with a vision to ‘do the right thing’. In 2009, FHRC assumed ownership of the cemetery with no funds and huge challenges. I was invited to join the Board of Directors and took the opportunity. Many people including myself express an interest in volunteering “in retirement” and I thought to myself, “Why wait…the opportunity is now.” I am entering my 5th year of serving on the Board – filling a need in the organization and within myself.
Since 2008, FHRC organizes a monthly outdoor Volunteer project to care for the 41 acres of burial ground. Projects are varied – filling ground hog holes, planting flowers, resetting fallen stones, removing holiday decorations, and spreading mulch regardless of weather conditions. The FHRC Board is a boots-on-the-ground group, working alongside the volunteers, submitting grant applications for funding, creating partnerships, responding to genealogical requests from across the globe, and providing countless hours assisting with the business of burials.
FHRC partners with local organizations, businesses, public officials, school groups, and neighbors. A group of offenders cut grass and trim around grave stones, a large seasonal expense. A welder made custom grates and repaired wrought iron fencing. A local vault company removed dirt piled on top of baby graves. A ground-penetrating radar professional created a grid map and assisted FHRC in locating the baby grave markers buried below the soil. A tree company sponsored 5 consecutive Arbor Days to care for over 200 trees. Cub scouts and leaders place American Flags on 880 Veterans graves in preparation for annual Memorial Day ceremonies.
Our Board uses a Volunteer-Partnership Model to fulfill its mission to operate and maintain Wilmington’s most culturally diverse, non-profit, public cemetery and to support its restoration and preservation. The leadership and the energy that is generated carries over to the volunteers. For example, a group of volunteers spent two years researching the historical significance of the cemetery. In July 2012, Riverview Cemetery was listed in the National Register of Historic Places – it is the only cemetery in Delaware to qualify on its own merit.
As a member of the Board, my tasks are time tolerant: they can be completed outside work hours. As a volunteer, it is important to do what you like and to be able to make it fit your schedule. As a member of the FHRC Board, I have enormous respect for all the board members.
There is a core group of volunteers who attend most of the monthly volunteer projects and others attend when they see something of interest listed in the newspaper. The volunteers who come to the monthly events are passionate about helping and they see visible signs of positive change. Many do not have relatives buried at Riverview; however, they recognize the vulnerability of this cemetery and the fascinating history associated with the lives of over 36,000 people interred there. Riverview is becoming a good example of how ordinary people can make a difference through goodwill and team spirit.
As a group, we are heading down a new path needing even more volunteers and partners, to raise funds and repair the badly damaged chapel /office building and transform it into the Riverview Cemetery Visitor and Information Center.
You never know where volunteering will take you. Try it!