If you look past the pond by Emerick Sports park on Sixth Street in Wood River, you will now find Woodland Hill Cemetery’s Babyland.
The concrete stairs at the entrance of Babyland are tattered and crumbling after more than 50 years of weather and several years of neglect, but those stairs led to another hidden treasure buried beneath. A large child’s storybook made of granite emerged from the thicket that also revealed a fountain, once flowing peacefully.
“In the past two days a total of four baby graves were found that were under brush and completely covered in up to 4 inches of dirt,” East Alton-Wood River Class of 1969 graduate Sara Sladek said. “It brought everyone working at the cemetery to tears when these little headstones appeared from beneath the dirt. They would have been forgotten and those babies deserve so much more respect than that.”
The dedicated volunteers hired a landscaper to trim trees, brush and the overgrowth obscuring the tiny grave markers.
Two members of the work crew, Justin Hodge and Cristian Millan, found two more baby graves last week, ensuring those children will no longer be forgotten.
The EAWR Class of 1969 continued its focus on community and in 2014 spent several days working in the cemetery to clean up the grave sites. The 2015 project was launched by EAWR alumni Sharon Urban and her husband, John, who now reside in Texas.
“In 1967 my ex-husband Aurthur and I buried our son at Woodland Hill Cemetery,” Urban said. “John and Aurthur have both been so supportive of this. I was so upset when I saw the condition of Babyland when I was home this past June. I knew I had to do something about this before I die because I want to make sure my son is not forgotten after I go. This is all about those babies; they deserve a respectful resting place.”
Woodland Hill Cemetery was well-maintained for many decades but in recent years the condition has deteriorated.
Actually in Wood River Township, the cemetery is a 10-acre lot at 370 Sixth St. and was maintained by owner William Helvie throughout the 1960s and 1970s before being sold to its current owner, William “Curtis” Work.
During a community cleanup last summer, the owner’s brother, Laurel Hill Memorial Gardens of St. Louis owner David Work, said he had been maintaining the cemetery for his brother the last few years, as Curtis has become physically unable to do so, but time and finances were an issue.
“Woodland Hill was a beautiful cemetery when we laid our son to rest there,” Urban said. “We’re not just concerned about the appearance; there are several large trees in Babyland and we’re worried that the roots may destroy the babies’ caskets. We are still having conversations about the trees with the owner.”
Discussions on the “I grew up in Wood River and I remember...” Facebook page got the ball rolling at the cemetery.
“So many people have offered to volunteer or participate on the Facebook page,” former EAWR teacher Susan Broadway said. “They have received permission from the owner to get the cemetery going in the right direction.”
Sladek said the EAWR Class of 1969 will return to the cemetery when the weather cools off.
“Last year we went during the summer and it was way too hot to work and so much needs to be done,” Sladek said. “We plan to do continued work at the cemetery in the future. We welcome volunteers and high school kids who need community service hours to come out and help with the cleanup process.”
Sladek also said that she knows there are families who have loved ones buried at Woodland Hill who may not be able to physically help clear out overgrowth around their family plots.
“We want to encourage those who cannot physically help but need a loved one’s plot worked on to call us,” Sladek said. “We are willing to help the community and bring dignity back to Woodland Hill.”
The outer areas of Babyland will be lined with new bushes and mulch. The baby grave markers will be cleaned, leveled and will have blue flowers for the boys and pink for girls placed at each marker before new grass will be put down. Benches will be installed near the granite storybook, which states: “Around the throne of God in heaven, hundreds of children play. Their beautiful happy faces reflect each joyous and wonderful day.”
Anyone who wishes to volunteer to work or is not able to help but would like someone to tend to a family plot may contact Class of 1969 member Sara Sladek at (618) 304-0225, Mary Lasbusy at (618) 696-2922 or Mary (Tortora) Roberts at (618) 363-9796.
The volunteers also are developing a separate funding program for donations to support cemetery maintenance. AdVantage News will provide updates when this donation opportunity becomes available.
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