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Resident participates in cemetery cleanup

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By Leslie Moore

 

On their hands and knees, they worked for hours to uncover the flat grave markers that went untouched for decades. They cleared away the grass clippings and dirt, then placed an American flag on each one.

The Kentucky Institution for the Education and Training of Feeble-Minded Children opened in 1860 as a residential facility for children with disabilities. Although the institute was eventually renamed the Kentucky Training Home and later the Frankfort State Hospital and School, the deplorable living conditions and instances of abuse and neglect continued until it was shut down in 1972.

And much like the thousands of children sent to live there, the institute's cemetery was mostly abandoned.

"They let it go, they left it alone and didn't clean it up," Campbellsville resident Mark Newton said.

Now 56, Newton was 10 years old when he was sent to live at the institute for the first time. He lived there a second time when he was 13.

Heather Bava, direct support staff member for Tri-Generations, has worked with Newton for eight years. She helps him budget, pay bills, shop for groceries, schedule doctor's appointments and plan vacations and leisure activities.

When the two participated in a cleanup project at the cemetery in 2012, it was a very emotional experience for Bava.

"It's a lot to be hit with at one time," Bava said. "The first time we went out and did the cemetery cleanup project, I just wanted to cry the whole time because it was like, he could have been one of them in the graves."

Newton and Bava's involvement in the Kentucky Self-Advocates for Freedom, a statewide advocacy group directed by individuals with disabilities, led them to Jeff Edwards. Program coordinator for the Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Developmental Disabilities, Edwards said he was eager to get Newton on board the project when he learned Newton once lived at the institute.

According to Edwards, there are 411 graves at the cemetery and 371 are marked "unknown." No one knows how many children were buried in each grave.

Just across the street is Frankfort Cemetery, the burial site of Daniel Boone, 17 governors and other famous Kentuckians.

"But you would have never even known this cemetery was across the street," Edwards said. "People with disabilities have been left out of our history."

Now a tradition the week before Memorial Day, Newton, Bava and Edwards participated in the annual cleanup of the cemetery last Thursday. After the cleanup, Newton helped unveil a historical marker dedicated to the children who died at the institute.

Edwards said the $2,600 to pay for the marker was raised by people with disabilities. He said Newton and other volunteers have traveled around the state to speak about the project's importance to them.

Edwards said volunteers designed several greeting cards and hosted bake sales and yard sales to raise the money. He said donations also came from people with disabilities, most of whom live on fixed incomes.

"We've done this with $2 and $3 donations from people that have very little or nothing," Edwards said. "It makes it that much more special."

Those who know Newton today say he has far exceeded the low expectations society once had for individuals with disabilities.

After working for several years at Walmart in Campbellsville, Newton is now a custodian at Grey Counseling Service in Columbia. He owns his own home and enjoys making crafts for his friends, including a beaded necklace for Bava on Mother's Day.

He is also an active member of Woodlawn Christian Church. Larry "Fella" Wilson, senior minister, said Newton attends Sunday services every week and sits on the second row. If the church-provided transportation is late, Newton calls to make sure someone will pick him up.

"He doesn't want to miss church," Wilson said. "He's there Sunday morning and if there's anything special going on during the week, he comes to that too."

Wilson said Newton has a lot to offer those who take the time to get to know him. He said those who don't miss out on an opportunity for gaining a sincere friend.

"Mark beat the stereotype of his day, and is far more able than disabled," Wilson said. "That's something that the people from the school for the feeble-minded probably never would have dreamed - that they had a child there who would go on to hold down a job and own a home."

According to Bava, she has never pushed Newton for memories about his time at the institute. Instead, she said she keeps track of the bits and pieces he has shared with her.

Newton said he remembers there were no funerals for the children who died, but he and other residents were allowed to stand outside the cemetery gates and watch as the caskets were lowered into the graves.

Although he said he is sad about the children who died, it makes him feel happy to participate in the project.

"When I watch him there and the way he cares for each grave, I think it's finally some ownership, some control over that part of his life," Edwards said.

And in addition to seeing the difference in the cemetery, Edwards said he and the other volunteers can feel it too.

"The first year of the clean up, it was such an isolated and lonely place," Edwards said. "Ever since that first year, there is a sense of peace about the cemetery. It's not at all what it was."