dventist Review assistant editor, Bonita Joyner Shields, recently interviewed Tim Evans, cofounder of The Unforgettables Foundation, a grassroots organization that enables low-income families to give their child(ren) a dignified burial. The organization just received the San Bernardino County Community Service Organization Award for 2006. Evans serves at La Sierra University as the development and museum director of the LSU Palm Springs campus.
BJS: What is The Unforgettables Foundation?
TE: When I began as the chaplain of the children’s hospital in Loma Linda in 1990, within the first month a local funeral director called me to ask if I knew of any financial resources that could be utilized to help one of the patients from our hospital. The mother had very little money, and she had mentioned my name as someone who had supported her family during her child’s illness. This funeral director called to the hospital and asked, “Do you have any avenues to help raise some money? This family is woefully short to have the adequate resources to do a basic burial.”
While serving in Takoma Park, Maryland, as a youth pastor, I actually became aware of the fact that there were families in my own church and in my own community who had experienced the loss of a child and did not have financial resources to supply a timely, dignified, and basic burial. Two young children died while I was associated with Takoma Park. In both cases I received calls from the family, asking for advice and counsel for advocacy on how to get burial help for their child.
After I arrived in Loma Linda, I became friends with not only the first funeral director who called me, but other funeral directors in the community as well. After being at the children’s hospital for 10-12 years, I was getting calls almost weekly because the demand had risen so steeply. At that point I began to realize that maybe we should have some kind of an organized response mechanism; maybe create a pool of money that could be utilized upon the right criteria, so that these families could have money sent discreetly to the funeral home on their behalf.
What was the impetus that made you decide to do something?
In southern California we have this phenomenon in which families conduct car washes when their children die. And a couple of car washes had sprung up on the route to my home. I’d stopped, and the people had said that such and such a child had been killed in an auto accident, and another child had drowned. The light went on in my head that this was something that needed somebody not just to advocate on an anecdotal basis, but to be there for these families and their plight on a regular basis. So in April 1999 I called together a group of community leaders such as politicians, physicians, law enforcement officers, clergy, medical personnel, school personnel, judges--top-level people--and asked them to come to a presentation that I was making at the local funeral home. Within five minutes of my telling them what I was seeing, what I was experiencing, and what I was being asked to do for these families, this group said, “Yes, we need to do something.”
So at that point Sonya and I put up the money out of our own pockets to obtain a 501 C-3 nonprofit certification. The Unforgettables Foundation is a community-owned, grassroots organization. The intention from the beginning was to benefit the schools, hospitals, clinics, churches, synagogues, and temples in our particular area, which is called The Inland Empire--Riverside and San Bernardino counties, which, geographically, are two of the three largest counties in the United States. It is a very young demographic, and a very low-income area of California, so it is a huge need area.
How did your wife, Sonya, come on board with your dream?
Not only is Sonya a compassionate person, but we both believe that the ministry of Christ showed exceptional compassion toward people who had lost someone to death. His experiences with Jairus’ daughter, with the widow’s son, and with the death of Lazarus show us that surrounding the death of people--especially children--Christ Himself was exceptionally touched and moved. Beyond that, one of the clearest things that we use as a motivation for this group is that if it were not for the generosity and thoughtfulness of Joseph of Arimathea, the story of Easter and the Resurrection would most likely be radically different. Christ would have been most likely thrown out on the hills with the other criminals after His death. His body may have been torn up by the dogs and other predators out there.
Another motivation for us is that within society today there is still in every region a potter’s field. It is usually connected to a large funeral home. Every county most likely has one potter’s field. It is used for people whom no one claims, people who are too poor to provide for their burial, or people who go unidentified. The potter’s field is usually just a dirt lot that abuts onto the regular grounds. It usually has no grass and no upkeep, and in the particular one that I was shown in San Bernardino County there were just little circular tunnels drilled into the dirt where the ashes of cremated individuals with no one to provide for them were placed. Canisters are put into these tunnels, and a number placed on the top of the canister for recordkeeping. The person’s name is not even kept alive.
We called this foundation The Unforgettables because throughout Scripture God always says He remembers our name. And He has our name written in His heart. God realizes that our name means a lot to us, and that having someone remember us, and having the sense that our life has meant something, is an essential core that is very important to us. During the time that I served as chaplain, right away you could tell that people feared that their loved one would be forgotten. They didn’t want them to be like a little miasma, a little puff of smoke, that came up and was quickly dissipated, and was quickly forgotten.
We draw heavily from our faith, but we haven’t pounded on that because we have many people from a number of different faith systems who support us, who work with us, who sit on our board. We have input from Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Muslims.
Who can benefit from The Unforgettables?
The UF has a very short process by which we determine who is eligible. The physicians that I referred to earlier agreed that there needed to be a minimal screening process because these people are already stunned, shaken, and dazed from the worst thing that can happen in the life of a family--the death of a child. So we’re trying to not make them have to go back and pull out tax forms, pay stubs, etc., to prove that they really are financially challenged.
We ask basically three questions: How old is the child? Anyone 18 or under qualifies. Where did that child live? If that child had residence in either of our two counties, that qualifies them. We ask the referring person whether or not the family is financially challenged. The vast majority of referrals come to us from professionals in the social service and medical support professions. So we will take the word of one of these individuals who is carrying out a role in the community as a caregiver for children. We will then send a check in the name of the child to the funeral home of the family’s choice.
Since beginning on 01/01/01, we have helped almost 900 families from 70 different communities just in our region. One of our dreams is that ultimately with the right partners we will be able to have one of these branches of UF at every children’s hospital and trauma center across the United States.
Every child deserves to be remembered by name. The Unforgettables helps to make that happen.