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Manchester mission
Volunteers aim to restore Valley Cemetery

07/12/18



 By Scott Murphy

smurphy@hippopress.com 
 
Once a popular public space with a gazebo, waterways and gardens, Valley Cemetery in Manchester has since become a haven for drugs and vandalism due to years of neglect. Over the last year, a group of volunteers has worked with the city’s Public Works Department to clean up the cemetery and restore it as an inviting public park. 
 
A 20-acre project
Valley Cemetery is bounded on 20 acres between Auburn, Pine, Valley and Willow streets, about a block away from the SNHU Arena at 555 Elm St. According to Manchester’s webpage on the cemetery, the land was donated to the city by the Amoskeag Manufacturing Corporation in 1841 and developed as both a cemetery and a public park. 
“Cemeteries were used as parks that people would walk and play in, and there were actually pathways and a gazebo down in the lower part of the cemetery when it was built,” said Don Pinard, chief of parks for Manchester.
Mike Drelick, a cook at Chez Vachon in Manchester, became a regular volunteer for recovery efforts at Valley Cemetery about a year ago. He said the cemetery has attracted vandalism, littering and drug use, and homeless individuals set up campsites in the lower field. 
A visit with Drelick at the cemetery in late June found broken fences, toppled gravestones, heroin needles, trash, human waste and a lewd drawing in spray paint on the mausoleum of Frederick Smyth, a former mayor of Manchester and state governor.
“The first day we cleaned here, we filled up 30 bags of trash and found 50 needles, and since then I’ve chased off kids who were trying to knock over tombstones,” Drelick said. 
 
Finding funding
A lack of adequate funding has caused the cemetery’s amenities to either fall into disrepair or disappear entirely. The gazebo and waterways are gone, and overgrown brush has engulfed gravesites. 
As recently as the 1970s, Pinard said the city’s cemeteries were overseen by its own separate department staffed by up to 40 employees. Today, cemeteries are now a section of the city’s Parks and Recreation Division, which is under the umbrella of the Public Works Department. Only seven full-time employees are tasked with maintaining nine cemeteries in the city. And with budgets tightening year after year, Pinard said it’s more difficult to keep up with all of the cemeteries’ needs. The division has started seeking outside grants more aggressively. 
“Attempting to do the same service or increase services with the same amount of money or less is very difficult,” Pinard said.
That’s why the city has relied on public-private partnerships to fill in the gaps, though efforts haven’t always been fully successful. A group called Friends of Valley Cemetery organized several years ago to paint and restore the fence around the cemetery but didn’t complete the project. Pinard said the fence wasn’t fully restored until about four years ago by a group of alumni from Leadership Manchester.
According to Rep. Patrick Long (D-Manchester), an initiative started under former mayor Robert Baines directed between $200,000 and $300,000 to cleaning up the cemetery each year, but that funding stopped when Frank Guinta took over as mayor in 2006. 
 
Making progress
Long and his wife are two members of a volunteer cleanup group aiming to restore Valley Cemetery. Tanya Frazier, a solutions engineer at Benefit Strategies in Manchester, launched the project while looking for a volunteer opportunity. She submitted an application to the city’s Adopt-A-Site program and became a steward of the cemetery. 
“Our goal is to make the cemetery a place where families want to take walks and bring their kids to ride their bikes,” she said.
Since June 2017, Frazier has led a core group of about eight volunteers who work at the cemetery every other Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon, and she said additional volunteers can push that number up to 20.
Along with collecting trash, the group has been clearing away brush and tree branches, in order to open up walking trails and make it more difficult for people to camp and use drugs in covered sections of the cemetery.
Drelick and his girlfriend Michelle Caron were among the first volunteers. They started and maintain a Facebook group called “Save Valley Cemetery, Manchester New Hampshire,” which began with five members last year and now has 353. Drelick’s job requires him to work Saturdays, but he still works at the cemetery during his days off. 
“I just want this to be a place people can enjoy walking through without being afraid of someone jumping out of the bushes,” said Drelick. 
 
Moving forward
While there’s still more work to do, cleanup efforts at Valley Cemetery have made a lot of progress. Over the past several months, both Drelick and Frazier have noticed more people coming in to walk on the trails in the main part of the cemetery. 
Frazier has several more ideas brewing for the cemetery, such as organizing volunteer events, renovating an onsite Gothic chapel into a visitor’s center and creating a nonprofit to raise funds for recovery efforts. Some volunteers have even expressed interest in learning how to repair gravestones and potentially opening the chapel up as a wedding venue. 
Frazier admitted these initiatives will take time, especially since she balances a full-time job with working at the cemetery in her free time. Still, she’s determined to do what she can to make these goals a reality. 
“Are we going to get gardens in there? You bet. But right now, we’re still cutting and clearing with chainsaws,” said Frazier. “I knew going in that this would be a many year commitment. For now, it’s nice to see things haven’t gone back to the way they were. We can still see the progress we’ve made over the last year.” 





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