Debi Faris had one eye on dinner and the other on the five o'clock news the night she heard the story that changed her life. Someone had abandoned a baby several miles from her hometown of Yucaipa, California, and the televised account of the tragedy left her immobile, too horrified to walk across the kitchen floor to silence the report's graphic details. She could do nothing but stand there and absorb the painful description of a newborn boy who had been stuffed into a duffel bag and tossed from a window of a car speeding down a freeway.
"I couldn't move," she says. "I kept thinking, 'How can this be? How have we become a society that throws away its children as if they are nothing?'"
Four days later, the story still haunted her. Somehow she had to find out what happens to a child's body that no one claims. Is the baby given a name? Does he have some kind of funeral? Does anyone say a prayer over his grave? She thought about contacting somebody, but she didn't know what to say or how to explain her growing obsession with the little boy. "I didn't know why this particular child was touching me so deeply," she says. "Finally, I asked God what he wanted me to do, and I felt him saying, 'Debi, pick up the phone and make the call for me.'"
An Act of Love
The information she gathered did little to relieve her anguish. The investigator in the coroner's office was kind, but the procedure that she described seemed routine and uncaring. The bodies of abandoned babies--and the county tallied as many as 15 a year--were assigned numbers, were eventually cremated, and the ashes were stored until enough had accumulated to justify the opening of a common grave. Debi thought about the newborn. "I just can't have that for this child," she said.
With the blessing of her husband and three children, she asked that the authorities release the baby to her for burial. She secured permission, and in her conversations with Gilda--the coroner's investigator--she learned of another unidentified newborn awaiting cremation. Could she care for him, too? she asked Gilda.
While she waited for the answer, her search for two burial places took her to Desert Lawn Cemetery in Calimesa, where an attendant pointed out an available plot in one area and another in a different section. "Somehow I knew we would be caring for more babies than these two," says Debi, "and I wanted a special place where they could all be together." She asked if there was a larger open area, and soon settled on what has become "a cemetery within a cemetery." Her premonition proved right; more babies were in her future.
"Gilda called me one morning and said that the two little boys were ready for release and that I could come pick them up. Then she hesitated and told me that they also had the body of a little girl, about age two, who had washed up on a beach in Malibu some time ago.
The coroner had been given the order to cremate the child's body. Gilda asked, "Debi, would you be willing to take care of her, too?" Overwhelmed, Debi told Gilda she needed time to think, but she never doubted her response.
'I don't think I can do this, God.
"I knew when I hung up the phone that we would be taking three caskets to the cemetery, but first I needed time alone with God. I remember praying, 'I don't think I can do this, God. I don't think I have the courage.' I stayed quiet for a while until I sensed that what we were doing was right. It was an act of love, and at that moment I made a commitment to offer it to any child who needed it."
A Gift From God
Of the 41 babies she has helped bury since that August in 1996, Debi has given names to five of them herself (she has enlisted help from others to name the other babies). The gesture is symbolic rather than official since the law prevents a stranger from naming a baby. The first three, Matthew, Nathan and Dora, were easy to bestow. Each name means "a gift from God," and she believes all children are just that.
As a way of offering healing to the police officers who investigate the deaths of abandoned children, Debi invites them to name the babies and participate in the services that honor the children. "They're the ones who have to remove the babies from the trash cans, the dumpsters, and the roadways," she says, "I thought it might help for them to be part of something loving that was planned for these children." The police often accept her offer, arriving at the cemetery in full dress uniform and carrying stuffed animals to tuck into the small caskets. "Sometimes they even bring their pastors with them, or they buy the blankets to wrap around the children, or they read poems and release doves as part of the services," says Debi.
The Bigger Picture
Word of Debi's ministry has spread, and volunteers have rallied to help with details that range from making pillows to tuck under the babies' heads to tending the flowers that decorate the Garden of Angels. She has recruited a group of pastors to conduct the services, and her dad makes the white crosses that serve as markers.
"Preparing the babies for [for burial] is the hardest thing I do. Yet it's also the most blessed thing I do. I think it's an honor to put my arms around these children, love them, and pray for them."
Until recently, she handled all of the arrangements from a spare room in her home. Thanks to an anonymous gift, she has moved this year to an office in the center of Yucaipa, where she spends more and more of her time overseeing efforts to lobby government in favor of a "safe abandonment" law. Under a safe abandonment law (which several other states are also in the process of developing), a mother could bring her unwanted baby to a safe place, such as a hospital emergency room or a police station, with the assurance that she won't be prosecuted. The legislation is controversial because opponents believe it allows parents to duck their responsibility and casually dispose of a child whose arrival is inconvenient.
By lobbying for legislation and investigating programs like Safe Arms, Debi hopes to reduce--better yet, eliminate--the need for her Garden of Angels cemetery. Until then, she tends the garden and honors its babies by telling their stories to service clubs, church groups, and middle-school students. "It will always be our mission to try and keep children from coming to the Garden of Angels," she tells her audiences. "Until then, by sharing the stories of the children who rest there, we have become their voices."