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When I first moved to Calimesa in Southern California, I noted that the Garden of Angels in Desert Lawn Cemetery was located in my city. I had read about the cemetery in 1996 when a wonderful lady, Debi Faris, living in Yucaipa (next to Calimesa) heard a newscast about a newborn baby found dead in a duffle bag that had been tossed out on the San Pedro freeway.
Faris explained how that newscast impacted her life. “He was placed, I assume by his mother, in a pink duffle bag with the word ‘lifesaver’ written on the outside of it. This little child would change the course of my life,” she said.
“When I heard the news report about that newborn baby in the duffel bag … it touched me so deeply that I could not turn and walk away. He was a human being, so innocent and vulnerable. It tore at my heart that his mother could not see the ‘gift’ she had been given.”
Thus Faris began her life-long quest to make sure there would be a place to bury these abandoned or murdered children and she made education of teens and young people her priorities.
Soon thereafter, she contacted Senator Jim Brulte to get the laws of child abandonment changed. The abandonment law passed after some time and in 2001 the Safe Surrender for Newborns law became part of her legacy.
“On August 26, 1996, we buried the first three children in the Garden of Angels. Two abandoned newborn baby boys and a little girl about the age of two, apparently murdered, who had been found floating in a river. I gave them their names, Matthew, Nathan and Dora. Their names all have the same meaning … a gift from God.” She said her dad made wooden crosses and sent them to her from Oregon.
The names were important she said because, “These children had a name now … they would not be just a Coroner’s number.”
There is even one adult buried in the Garden. Grandpa John’s stone cross sits on the edge of the garden amidst the forest of monuments dedicated to the tiny children.
In 2002, Faris had received a call from the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office asking if she knew anyone or group who would take the body of an adult and give him a proper burial. “I said I didn’t and asked why,” she said.
The person on the other line proceeded to tell Faris they had a man who had died and as they were trying to find family to notify them of his death, they learned that as a baby, he had been found discarded in a trash can in July 1936.
The man, legally named John Doe Jr., had suffered brain damage, possibly from being thrown into the trash can and had apparently lived his life in institutions, she said.
“I told them I would take him,” she smiled. “Now he’s surrounded by all these children and he won’t ever be alone again.”
Debi Faris in the Garden of Angels
I attended several of the funerals at the Garden of Angels since I lived in the general area then. The first one I attended was for three babies, all in tiny caskets, and all wrapped in receiving blankets. Two of the caskets were no bigger than large boxes that might contain boots.
Debi Faris would drive from Yucaipa, CA all the way to Los Angeles, where the bodies of babies would be kept, along with every other person who was unidentified and/or unclaimed, and all the bodies would be cremated as one might burn trash. She would get the babies, clean their tiny bodies and wrap them in clean receiving blankets. Then she would sit with the babies for a short time, rocking them in a sort of loving action that a mother would make. And then she would bring them back to Calimesa, CA, to the Garden of Angels, and they would be put in their tiny caskets for the funerals.
The funerals I attended back around 2014 were beautiful ways to acknowledge a life that otherwise might have passed into the netherworld without their lives having been acknowledged. All the babies are given a first and sometimes middle name. They cannot get a last name because of legal issues, I imagine lest someone comes to claim any of them, which has never happened. There is singing. The song I heard was “I’ll Fly Away Home,” and it was truly touching. I know I shed some tears. When the little caskets are taken outside to the burial site, people stand over them and pray for them and white doves are released. They circle higher and higher in the sky over the site, and eventually begin to fly back home. At every holiday, the little graves are decorated with flowers and other gifts brought by different people who visit the cemetery. The Garden of Angels is a special part of the cemetery all of its own right near the front of the mortuary. There is a little pool nearby and birds and ducks come there frequently to visit the pond. It is a beautiful ceremony, and though sad, I think the fact that the babies are honored instead of being thrown away in trash cans, dumped in rivers, left out in the desert, or otherwise thrown away as a life without any value other than perhaps a 20-minute sex act (if that).
I have always been so touched by what this one woman did, a woman who was not wealthy, and who sold her family car to have money to bury the first three babies, that I too decided to do something as well in their honor. So I began collecting blue and white quilt blocks that various women have donated. I will ultimately bind each block individually and put them together horizontally so that the quilt can continue to grow. I had made a list of the babies and their names, and some people have chosen to embroider a child’s name on a block. I think when someone is talking to the young people at the high schools, it is a good visual aid to help them understand the reality of the issue.
Prior to the passing of the Safe Surrender for Newborns law, it is estimated that there were some 500 babies abandoned and/or murdered outright. Today as it stands, there are more than 100 babies in the cemetery. I have not been there lately so I am not sure of the exact number, but one baby is too many. For information on California’s Safely Surrendered Baby Law, go to babysafe.ca.gov.
Footnote: Debi Faris, after working so hard on this issue, actually won the lottery and her payout out of $26,000,000,000 was $9,000,000,000. She contributed some of it to the nonprofit organization that I believe now exists.
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