July 26, 2006

"Local woman helps provide last rites for the very young"

by Angela Roark

   Four years ago, a two month old baby girl was brutally killed by her mentally unstable mother. The story made headlines and prompted a St. Charles woman's passionate response. After seeing the story on television, Rebeca Navarro-McKelvey called the St. Louis City Medical Examiner's office and said she wanted to help raise money to pay for the baby's burial if the family couldn't.

She did that and more.

After expenses for Destiny Daniels' funeral were paid, $1000 was donated to Court Appointed Special Advocates, a child abuse prevention group.

"People in St. Louis are overwhelmingly generous," Navarro-McKelvey said.

But this little girl had a family who wanted her-they just couldn't pay for the funeral. What about babies whose families cannot afford a funeral?

Rose Psara, St. Louis City's chief medical investigator, says that unclaimed infants are buried at the city's expense. If next of kin cannot be located, or if relatives do not want the infants, the bodies are taken to a local cemetery, sometimes after spending weeks in the morgue. Although the babies get a casket, they are not embalmed, are buried naked and often are paired up in the casket. No one can attend their burial, and the grave is not marked.

"As a mother this shocked me," Navarro-McKelvey said. "I've always believed that all life is sacred, and I couldn't believe someone would pass from this world without anyone else knowing or caring."

Today, Navarro-McKelvey heads Garden of Innocents, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing dignified funereal services for unclaimed children in the St. Louis metro area. She has worked diligently to organize people and funds to create the organization.

Navarro-McKelvey began by arranging to have a burial garden donated by Msgr. Robert McCarthy of the Catholic Cemetery Association. Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis County hosts the plot.

Other efforts include persuading her office to hold a dress down week where colleagues paid $5 per day to wear jeans rather than suits. A dart tournament was organized to raise funds, and a garage sale is planned for this fall.

Recently, a permanent memorial stone was donated to Garden of Innocents by Monumental Finishers. An unveiling and dedication ceremony is planned for July 29 at the burial garden. Names of all children buried in the garden will be engraved on the stone.

Since 2003, the organization has buried five infants at Calvary Cemetery and has provided funeral services for two others, including Destiny Daniels.

Navarro-McKelvey, 32, is a mother of two young children. She works as a white-collar crime prosecutor for the St. Louis circuit attorney's office.

Her husband, Shane McKelvey, also helps manage the organization. He works as a regional account manager for MetLife Retirement Plans. Navarro-McKelvey doesn't believe she is doing anything special, though, in managing all these things.

"Providing dignified burials is important to me, to my children, to the community," Navarro-McKelvey said. "When something is important to you, you just make time for it. I don't really think I'm unique in that."

Garden of Innocents takes as its motto a quote from Dr. Seuss, "A person's a person no matter how small."

Often, the infants the organization receives for burial are born extremely premature and require delicate handling. Yet each child is given respectful last rites.

Children referred to the organization are each given a graveside memorial service, with prayer and song. Each baby is buried in its own casket, with a teddy bear.

Volunteers knit special gowns, caps and booties for the tiny babies, or customized garments called "sack gowns" for those too delicate to dress.

Last month Garden of Innocents buried two babies, Gabriel and Michael. Each boy lived less than one day, one for only an hour.

In May there was Angelica. But each had their own funeral program and was attended by several volunteers. Local florists donated flowers and a funeral home transported the tiny caskets to the grave site.

Janie Burse, director of St. Louis child and welfare for Lutheran Family and Children's Services, says her organization "definitely would not have been able to provide the level of service we did without the Garden."

Two of the seven infants for whom Garden of Innocents provided services were referred through the Lutheran Family and Children's Services.

Burse said she was referred to Garden of Innocents by a social worker at St. Louis Children's Hospital.

"When I found out about the Garden, I was shocked but impressed that there was an organization filling such a niche in the community. I was impressed by the way she (Navarro-McKelvey) pulled everything together," Burse said.

Garden of Innocents is the only organization of its type in the area. The group relies solely on private donations and volunteers to carry out its mission. Volunteers attend funerals, make burial gowns and help send thank-you notes to donors.

Currently, Garden of Innocents serves only St. Louis City, but hopes to expand to St. Charles County this year. The board is in the process of extending services to St. Louis County, as well.

"There are so many issues regarding each county and city, and it's just going to take some time to get everything together," Navarro-McKelvey said

In St. Louis County, unclaimed children are buried or cremated at the county's expense. Sometimes the hospitals have their own program, called Babyland Burials, with local cemeteries, said Suzanne McCune. McCune is St. Louis County's forensic office administrator.

Garden of Innocents hopes to assist the hospitals, which would ultimately save the county money, said Navarro-McKelvey.

St. Charles County's medical examiner, chief investigator Kathleen Diebold, says her office has not had an unclaimed child in the 15 years she has worked there. But, she said, if the situation ever did arise, infants would be buried in a similar manner to adults. They would be buried in a plain coffin with no headstone.

Diebold's office also serves Jefferson and Franklin counties, and she said those counties have not experienced an unclaimed infant, either.

Lutheran Family and Children's Services, which has offices statewide, is planning to open an office in St. Charles County. This, said Burse, could aid Garden of Innocents in expanding their services.

Navarro-McKelvey said the organization has begun to explore the inclusion of the metro east area, but "crossing state lines is more difficult than county lines."

Other plans for Garden of Innocents' future include increased community contact.

"Everyone is invited to the funerals," said Navarro-McKelvey. "We want people to know about this so that we can help prevent it." Possibilities for awareness and prevention programs include using financial means, when available, to assist other agencies such as CASA or drug abuse prevention programs.

Navarro-McKelvey was recognized earlier this year for her work by the St. Louis chapter of Epsilon Sigma Alpha (ESA), with the Distinguished International Academy of Noble Achievement (DIANA) award. ESA supports local charities founded by women for their humanitarian efforts. ESA also supports the St. Jude's Hospital mission. She was also nominated for the Women of Achievement Award.

"My ultimate goal is that our community won't have a need for the Garden," she said. "But until that happens, there's no reason anyone should be buried without a proper good-bye. If people are interested in starting a Garden in their community, in other states, we can help them do that."