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— Ten years ago, Elissa Davey received her vocation. She was a 50-year-old realtor, mother of two sons, and resident of San Marcos when the call came in the form of a story in the newspaper about a newborn baby found dead and abandoned in Chula Vista. “Usually,” she says today, “you read stories like that and say, ‘Oh my God, who could do something like that? How cruel. How ignorant. How sad.’ Then your day starts, and you are off on your own and you forget.”

But Davey couldn’t forget that baby. “I don’t know why that particular baby was different, but it haunted me to the point where, after a month, I called the County Medical Examiner’s Office and I asked them what became of that baby. And he said he was still there. And if nobody claimed him, he would go into an unmarked grave at Mount Hope Cemetery. I asked, ‘How do you claim a baby that is not yours?’ He said, ‘Show me you have a dignified place to put him.’ So I went to work to make a dignified place to put him. But I didn’t get that baby, because it took me almost a year to get it all set up.”

What she set up was a nonprofit organization called Garden of Innocence, dedicated to burying unidentified dead babies such as the Chula Vista baby she had read about and babies abandoned at local hospitals. El Camino Memorial park in Sorrento Valley “offered to donate 105 places for me. I just had to pay a one-time fee of $16,000 for the opening and the closing of the graves.”

Davey had put together a board of directors for the nonprofit. She gathered them all and showed them the offer from El Camino. “I put the note on the table, and everyone that was there said, ‘I am not signing that note.’ Nobody would sign it with me. So I figured, ‘I will sign, I don’t care.’ So I signed it, and I owed $16,000 to El Camino.”

She borrowed $16,000 against the equity in her house to pay the cemetery and paid it off over the next two and a half years with fund-raising efforts. “I started doing public speaking, I started putting out the word and getting people involved. We did a fund-raiser, and then New Venture Church in North County donated $10,000, and another donor gave us $15,000. So I was able to pay that off. Then, over the next couple of years, I decided to buy the land around the garden. It came to $30,000, but it was enough gravesites for 600 children. So I decided to do more public speaking and try to meet 30,000 people and ask them for a dollar each. I didn’t have to meet 30,000 people, but I had to meet a lot of them. I spoke at church groups and civic groups, Lions Clubs, Kiwanis. I spoke at youth groups — some of the youth groups raised money by having car washes. We only put on one big fund-raiser. I was able to pay [the $30,000] in a year and a half. So now the garden is totally paid off, except every time we bury a baby, we have to pay a fee of $125.”

In the spring of 1999, a baby boy whom Garden of Innocence members would later name Adam “was found wrapped up in his mother’s sweatpants and thrown in the trash,” Davey recalls.

The county medical examiner turned over Adam’s body to Davey. On May 21, 1999, Adam became the first baby buried at the Garden of Innocence. And he was almost the last. “The medical examiner told us that part of the rules were, if [a baby] is unidentified and considered certified abandoned, that we weren’t supposed to tell anybody any of his circumstances. So [representatives of the medical examiner] showed up at the service to kind of critique us and watch how we did the first service. But in the newspaper the next day was a whole story about [Adam], how he was found, where he came from, the details of where he was thrown away. And the County immediately canceled us and said, ‘We gave you specific orders not to divulge that information.’ I said, ‘We didn’t say a word, we never mentioned anything, we didn’t tell a soul.’ Come to find out that the person that wrote the story had spoken directly to someone in the Medical Examiner’s Office who told her everything. So once they found out that we didn’t do it, that it was one of their own personnel, we got the go-ahead to continue.”

The other snag with Adam’s burial involved the minister who volunteered to speak at the service. “Somebody asked me, ‘What should we tell the minister to say?’ ” Davey recalls. “I said, ‘We shouldn’t have to tell him anything. Ministers know what to do at a gravesite service.’ ”

But the minister at that first service made Davey regret the decision not to give talk guidelines. “[He] used the word ‘abortion,’ he used the word ‘kill,’ he used the phrase ‘thrown in the trash.’ He said, ‘What an awful mother.’ He brought up all this horrible stuff. And we were thinking, ‘Don’t mention any of those words, because what happened yesterday doesn’t pertain to today. Today is a new day.’ ”

At all of the services since Adam’s, Davey and other members of the nonprofit have given guidelines to the ministers who volunteer to speak. “The only thing that we say is, ‘Don’t mention what an awful mom. Don’t mention how cruel this was. Don’t mention anything that happened yesterday. Focus on today. Today this baby is going home with a lot of people that care, a lot of people that love him.’ ”

Catholic priests, protestant ministers, rabbis, and shamans from around San Diego and as far away as Chicago have spoken at Garden of Innocence services. “We’ve had [representatives from] 32 different churches come, and they all volunteer. And we have more lined up who want to come for future services.”

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