CHAPEL HILL - Charles Roland is a crew member for Gravesite Guardians, which provides a service that is often overlooked - cleaning headstones at gravesites.
Gravesite Guardians is the newest enterprise launched by Extraordinary Ventures, a local nonprofit that employs adults with developmental disabilities.
On Oct. 27, Roland and five other crew members fanned out across Sparrow Cemetery off Mount Carmel Church Road, scrub brushes in hand.
Until last week, the crew members had been cleaning gravesites individually, working one-on-one with a job coach or a staff member. Oct. 27 was the first time they all worked at the cemetery together.
"I'm helping someone by keeping it clean," said Roland.
Extraordinary Ventures was founded by a group of local parents who wanted to create meaningful training and employment opportunities for their young adult children with development disabilities.
"The original founders all had children with autism," said Stephen Dougherty, the new business development manager of Extraordinary Ventures.
The organization now employs people with other developmental disabilities such as cerebral palsy and Down syndrome.
The company has various business units, including a laundry service, event setup and cleanup, a bus cleaning service - and its newest venture - Gravesite Guardians. The gravesite service involves cleaning up cemeteries, restoring headstones and straightening flowers.
"The gravesite service is one that provides care service to families or loved ones in need who are unable to tend to their loved ones' monument or marker," Dougherty said. "We do monument cleaning, photography and ground maintenance."Helping communities
The Gravesite Guardian program decided to clean Sparrow Cemetery for its group kickoff event because of a long-standing connection with the Sparrow family, which shares the cemetery with Mount Carmel Baptist Church.
Cheek's link to Extraordinary Ventures was her work for the Chapel Hill-based Treatment and Education of Autistic and Communication Related Handicapped Children, or TEACCH, program.
The cemetery served as the training site for the Gravesite Guardians. Since last spring, crew members working individually have cleaned up 13 cemeteries, said Dougherty. Cleanings occur weekly or bi-weekly.
"I think what Stephen is trying to do is help communities," Cheek said. "This is certainly a wonderful way to meet people and need their services."
Parents and advisors went to the cemetery with the crew members on Oct. 27. One parent, Gregg Ireland, who is on the board of Extraordinary Ventures, said his son Vinnie comes to this cemetery twice a month to clean up with Gravesite Guardians.
"Our mission is to get employment for people like Vinnie and the others," Ireland said.
Susan Lombardo, a board member of Extraordinary Ventures and the transition facilitator to students at East Chapel Hill High School, said she appreciates the variety of opportunities the job offers, including raking, blowing leaves and cleaning headstones.
"There's a beginning, a middle and an end," she said. "The activity is concrete, straightforward and easily teachable."
She said that it is especially meaningful to see some of her students helping the community.
"I see potential that one might not normally see in the classroom," Lombardo said. "I see talent, excitement."Everybody wins
Van Hatchell, director of marketing and communications for Extraordinary Ventures, was helping one of the crew members clean a headstone.
"This is great," Hatchell said. "The weather's awesome. Our crew is out here doing what they do best. They can be more focused and detail-oriented than someone without a disability."
Hatchell was helping crew member Paige Crow. She helped spread mulch and clean headstones. She also works for the bus cleaning service.
"My favorite thing is cleaning buses," Crow said.
Dougherty said the jobs are based on the skill sets of the individuals.
"We create the businesses around the individual," Dougherty said. "A lot of our guys love traveling and being outside."
He said the new service offers clear benefits to everyone concerned.
"The way we see the service is a win-win-win-win-win service," Dougherty said. "It is great at preserving the community. It is great for families, and it is working within this field of gravesite cleaning. It is a touchy subject.
"There are strong feelings between living family members and those who have passed.
"The biggest win is that we will be employing adults with disabilities. We are able to provide paid, meaningful employment to those individuals."
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