Venerable West Warwick graveyard Neglected no more

01:00 AM EST on Friday, November 30, 2007

By Lisa Vernon-Sparks

Journal Staff Writer

Feinstein students, members of the school’s S.A.V.E. club, march into the Wightman-Sweet Historical Cemetery yesterday afternoon.

The Providence Journal / Kathy Borchers

WEST WARWICK — Brandon Tordoff diligently raked dead leaves and debris into a pile, which he then stuffed into a large brown bag.

It’s a task the eighth-grader has had to do at home. But yesterday, in the Wightman-Sweet Historic Cemetery No. 38 on East Greenwich Avenue, it seemed less like a chore.

“If I was raking leaves for my dad, it’s just for our family. But if I’m cleaning up a cemetery, I feel like I’m doing it for everyone,” said Brandon, 13, who performed the cleanup work alongside about 20 classmates from the Alan Shawn Feinstein Middle School of Coventry.

The students, members of a school club called S.A.V.E. — Students Against Vandalism Everywhere — applied rakes and clippers to the 50-by-50-foot weed-filled graveyard, across the street from the Carpenter-Jenks Funeral Home.

Working with them were teachers from the middle school and employees of Carpenter-Jenks. The cemetery contains markers that date back to at least 1806.

Last month, the funeral home co-owners, Sue and Craig Carpenter, decided to take care of the cemetery, after being inspired by a Providence Journal article on Oct. 31 titled “In Grave Condition,” about the plight of Rhode Island’s historic cemeteries.

Sue Carpenter called Evelyn Wheeler, the head of the Rhode Island Advisory Commission on Historical Cemeteries, which is looking for residents to “adopt” neighborhood historic cemeteries.

“It’s kind of freaky that we adopted the cemetery on Halloween,” Carpenter said. “[We did it] because it was right across from our funeral home. We felt it was especially important because the historical cemeteries tend to get ignored. It’s just a shame. These families die off and there’s nobody to care for them, [unlike] the public cemeteries.”

The Carpenters’ son Kyle, 13, an officer of the S.A.V.E. club at Feinstein, mentioned to the club’s adviser, teacher Charles Blanchette, that his parents had adopted the Wightman-Sweet cemetery. Blanchette thought it would provide a good project for the .

Blanchette, a social studies teacher, said that S.A.V.E. was started by his former student Taylor Therrien. She noticed one day that several tombstones in Knotty Oak Historic Cemetery, on Route 116, had been toppled. Appalled that someone would destroy another’s property, Taylor, now a Coventry High School student, started the anti-vandalism club with six classmates, hoping to teach others about how bad vandalism is for the community.

“Vandalism is kind of an entry-level crime or a gateway crime, as much as marijuana is a gateway drug,” Blanchette said. Preventing vandalism is, he said, “an education issue.”

S.A.V.E., which is affiliated with the organization Youth Crime Watch of America, now has 80 members — at least half of them constantly engaged in projects such as clean-ups, working with local police to identify problem areas, or speaking at schools.

Kyle said he feels good about helping to educate his peers about how to deter vandalism.

“I think I learned that a small group of people can make a big difference in their community,” Kyle said.

“I like that they’re going to pass [the information] on to their friends and family, and everyone will have knowledge about how to make their community better.”