IMPERIAL – Volunteers braved the heat and humidity Saturday morning to help with the Memory Gardens Restoration Project at the cemetery located north of Imperial.
Jesus Amial, who served with the U.S. Marine Corps from 1988-1992 and in Desert Storm, was serving once again. This time, however, he was equipped with a shovel and a broom. He and other volunteers, mostly war veterans, took turns using the shovel, broom or hauling sand using a wheelbarrow to clean up and restore graves and markers, many belonging to military veterans.
Amial took a broom and brushed away soil and dirt from headstones that only minutes ago had been resurfaced by five other volunteers.
“I’m leveling out the dirt around it, cleaning up the headstones so that the names of the deceased can be read and family can identify and find their loved ones easier,” Amial said.
It was hot that Saturday morning. Even though cloud cover dispersed the sun’s heat, it was still warm and humid. Amial was clothed with a red t-shirt printed with military icons, a camouflaged hat, a matching pair of khaki pants, and a pair of leather working shoes.
Volunteers usually work in the cemetery from 7 to 10 a.m. every Saturday donating their time — using resources and materials likewise donated by supporters from the community for this ongoing restoration project. The mission seems formidable. But progress is steady. Headstones are now visible and can be seen by passing motorists traveling northbound on Highway 86.
The Memory Gardens Restoration Project’s mission is to create a welcoming environment for the cemetery. One main concern was to probe, identify, and resurface buried headstones above ground level. Through years of neglect, plus the consequences of natural elements and disasters such as flooding, wind, and earthquakes, the headstones sank below ground level. Thus, it was difficult for family members and loved ones to identify those buried at the cemetery. This was further aggravated by “ghost owners” who haven’t stepped up to claim ownership and responsibility of the cemetery.
At break-time, Cruz Abarca, (U.S. Army, 1969-1971) called out to the volunteers to take a break. One by one, they approached Abarca who was standing next to his car with a tray of breakfast burritos.
Along with family members, Abarca has been involved with the restoration project since its inception in May last year.
Another task was to uproot and replace dead trees at the cemetery, according to Abarca. He said replacing the trees is scheduled in September when the temperature is cooler and conducive to the growth of most plants. But water distribution is not in place. Sprinklers are damaged and there is no water storage.
“We could get it out here with a water truck. We can go ahead and rig-up a portable watering system,” Abarca said.
Miguel Valencia (U.S. Army, 1963-1966) drove from Calipatria to join fellow veterans. According to Valencia, he participated in military services on Memorial Day at the cemetery about three years ago. Several headstones have markings indicating those who had served in the military.
“To me, it is an honor to be here,” Valencia said.
It has been more than a year since the start of the restoration project. In a letter emailed July 6, 2017, Kim Vincent of Imperial Valley for Vets expressed her gratitude to community volunteers, donors, and the media for the Memory Gardens Restoration Project.
“Kudos to everyone who has donated their time, resources, or has given monetary donations in our effort to restore our local cemetery,” she said. “Without you, Memory Gardens Cemetery would still be in so much disarray. We all have made a difference during this past year of ongoing restoration, and look forward to one day, an owner stepping up to take charge of his/her property.”
Restoration of the Memory Gardens Cemetery is still far from completion and more work is needed. An emailed flyer indicated the next schedule: July 22 and 29; August 5, 12, 19 and 26 from 7 to 10 a.m.
Amial said, “We welcome anybody who wants to come out here and give us a hand. There’s always work to do. The more people we have, the sooner we’ll get our project and our goal accomplished.”