People don’t often volunteer at Tenino’s Forest Grove Cemetery, so when cemetery clerk Debi Overlie put out a call on Facebook to raise funds for placards for the graves of forgotten children, Overlie didn’t expect much.
But the response from the community was overwhelming, she said.
“I received more (donations) than I needed,” she said. “The Lions Club even said they would pay for everything more that I needed up to $800.”
Overlie was able to procure placards for $50 a piece, all marking the graves of infants who’d been forgotten. She took it upon herself to be the one who remembered them.
While she was volunteering at the cemetery, Overlie noticed a concrete slab set in the ground in the “old section” of the cemetery, and asked the clerk at that time what, or who, it was supposed to be commemorating.
All she could find was a name and a date of death for an infant with the surname Geron, who died July 24, 1909.
That’s when Overlie began to do some of her own digging.
“As I was learning more the longer I was here, and I took over as clerk and had the records, I found that there were 13 unmarked graves of infants,” Overlie said.
Two of the graves were marked as Wickman, which were paid for by a local doctor with the same last name at the time of their deaths.
“To me it would seem like if it was his child, he would have had it marked, so I wonder if these were children that he delivered or assisted in the deliveries, and he paid for the graves,” Overlie said.
She said she wanted to do something for the forgotten children, so she requested help from the community, and within days she had all the gravemarkers paid for.
“The fact that it was children is what did it,” Overlie said. “That’s the reason I got such a response. … No one volunteers (regularly). I hold work parties and no one comes.”
Not long after she began volunteering, she became the clerk of the cemetery, and now sits on its board of directors.
She advocated for the voiceless youths, she said, because their stories, or lack thereof, moved her into action.
“It just touched me,” Overlie said.
Now that the graves of the infants will be marked, there is still more work to be done to restore the older sections of the historic site, which has gravestones dating as far back as the mid-1800s.
Gravestones are coming off their bases, weeds and trees encroach the graves, and cement needs to be poured to stabilize decaying gravesites, among many other restoration activities.
“I can’t do it all myself,” Overlie said.
Those interested in helping can call 360-481-3316.
Infants that will now have grave markers include those with the surnames Goodwin, two with the surname Wickman, Norberg, Howard, Richardson and Handy, whose dates of death are unknown. There’s also Paula Marie Van Blair, who died on July 26, 1975; De Loss Newell, who died in 1916; Candie Deniel Bradford, who died Jan. 24, 1975; an infant with the surname Geron, who died July 24, 1909; another Norberg infant, who died Feb. 14, 1915; and an infant with the surname Work, who died Aug. 11, 1908.