Honoring the Dead: How a group of Camden area teens are honoring veterans through restoration

Written by: Michael Lovaglio, UrbanPromise Academy Language Arts and Literacy Teacher and Education Coordinator 

The seven founding members of the Johnson Cemetery Restoration and Maintenance Project in Camden, New Jersey are Adrian Alicea, Maria Arroyo, Carlos Garcia, Alexandra Gonzalez, Kirk Johnson, Joseph Palma, and Tyrone Richardson; they are high school students. Johnson Cemetery is located on Federal Street at Terrace Avenue, only a few hundred feet away from the students’ U.S. Government and Economics class at UrbanPromise Academy High School. Veteran soldiers who fought for the 54th Regiment of the Union Army in the Civil War, as well as veterans from the Spanish-American War were laid to rest in Johnson Cemetery.  Still, not one student in the senior class was aware that the very men they were studying in history were buried across the street.

The mean income of a resident living within the city of Camden is approximately $26,000 (United States Census Bureau), which is far below livable wage estimates. As a result of insufficient funds and neglect of the grounds, Johnson Cemetery became so unkempt that people forgot that it was sacred ground, a cemetery. Residents began using the grounds as a park, hosting barbecues and playing field games on the cemetery grounds, over the resting places of American heroes.

“I would drive past,” said UPA senior Maria Arroyo. “I never noticed it was a cemetery. I always thought it was a park.” Fellow UPA senior Alexandra Gonzalez shared Arroyo’s unawareness. “Growing up, while visiting that park, I always noticed one visible tombstone.” Gonzalez would wonder, “Are there actual people below me?”

When the senior class learned of the valor and sacrifice of those resting at Johnson Cemetery, they chose to work to restore dignity to these grounds. Both Adrian Alicea and Carlos Garcia felt compelled to act. With the knowledge that the park was and still is a cemetery, they felt it was now their responsibility to reinstate honor to the cemetery.

What if it was my “family member there?” said Garcia. “I was doing something constructive, positive; paying respect to all those heroes who are buried here,” said Alicea. “I feel like I am taking part in maintaining my community and making sure that our environment is taken care of.”

Motivated to make a difference, the students first spent time cleaning the grounds. Once weekly, as a team, the senior class would pick up trash, weed, and rake the grounds. The students took special care and consideration when working around the tombstones. Their immediate task was to clear the tombstones so that they would once again be visible. The students then began spreading awareness throughout the city of Camden. They wanted Camden County residents to know exactly what the patch of ground at Federal and Terrace was and who exactly was buried there. The students also invited other schools and community groups to participate in cleanup and maintenance projects at the cemetery. During these projects, the senior class would speak about the history of the cemetery and explain the importance of maintaining it.

After spending weeks working to maintain the grounds at Johnson Cemetery, the senior class petitioned the Camden City Council to make a proclamation stating that the students of UrbanPromise Academy will take the charge of maintaining the grounds of Johnson Cemetery. The senior class then extended an invitation to Frank Moran, Camden City Council President and Director of Camden County Parks, to UrbanPromise Academy in order to discuss the present maintenance and future development of Johnson Cemetery. In December of 2012, President Moran guaranteed Camden City and Camden County’s support of the Johnson Cemetery Restoration and Maintenance Project before all students of UrbanPromise Academy. After President Moran visited the Academy the Camden City Council passed an official resolution making the school “Friends of Johnson Memorial Park” on February 12, 2013. In so doing, the City Council honored the service of the UPA seniors while guaranteeing the future maintenance of Johnson Cemetery.

UPA History Teacher, Kevin Watkins, who attended the meeting, said, “Specifically he [Councilman Moran] gave UPA stewardship” over the grounds. 

During a recent cleanup a student uncovered a tombstone that had been veiled by overgrown grass. The engraving read, “Gone but not forgotten.” For Jim Cummings, Director of the Experiential Learning Program at UrbanPromise, “It is what our efforts in the cemetery are all about—paying tribute to and recognizing those who long ago were buried at that cite. He isn’t forgotten.”

The students of UrbanPromise Academy were not searching for a project. But once they learned about Johnson Cemetery, they understood the value and importance of it. “On our first cleanup I was brought to tears,” said Gonzalez. “The role of the dead is to teach the living a lesson.” For Gonzalez that lesson is “to respect people and to always practice compassion.”

The senior class’s efforts are one step in revitalizing this city of 77,000 people who deserve to have a place where the strength and endurance of their heroes are honored—a location for legacy. Johnson Memorial Park and Cemetery is becoming one such place.