Nonprofit Spotlight: Woodlawn Cemetery Preservation Training Program

Old graves offer new vocational possibilities.

Madam C. J. Walker, Joseph Pulitzer, Rowland Macy, Herman Melville, Fiorello LaGuardia, and Miles Davis are all buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. Established in 1863 and interring over 300,000 individuals, the 400-acre property is a national historic landmark. Many of the 1,300 mausoleums and 150,000 monuments in this graveyard are paragons of American design, but they don’t keep themselves. Maintaining the treasures of this peaceful property is a job for skilled artisans fluent in the languages of marble, slate, and stained glass.

But here, as in most cemeteries around the U.S., decay outraces repair. When administrators at Woodlawn found themselves in need of more restorative hands, they also noted troubling trends among the living in their Bronx community. The borough has an 8 percent unemployment rate, and one of the highest youth incarceration rates in the state.

Enter the Woodlawn Cemetery ­Preservation Training Program, a partnership between the cemetery, World Monuments Fund, International Masonry Institute, and additional funders. It created a nine-week internship on the grounds, providing 16 young adults with work resetting, cutting, polishing, caulking, and renewing ­stonework—and getting paid $10 per hour for a 30-hour workweek. Resident craftsman Robert Cappiello offers participants professional training. He helps them “grasp the basic safety skills, terminologies, stone types, and hand skills needed to be in this trade.”

Students develop their social aptitudes as well, through life-skills classes and services provided by the nonprofit ­Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow, thanks to a grant from the Heckscher Foundation for Children. “We wanted to be as creative as we could in addressing other life issues these young people are facing,” says Frank Sanchis, the U.S. program director at the World Monuments Fund. Young people who complete the program have a chance to build a family-sustaining career in building trades and preservation, in the heart of the architecturally robust and high-maintenance Big Apple.

Meanwhile, Woodlawn receives much-needed help with its restoration backlog. “Historic cemeteries are facing the losing battle of maintaining an overwhelming number of monuments with limited interest in care from descendants,” says Woodlawn’s historian, Susan Olsen. “Using the historic cemetery as a training site, or ‘outdoor lab,’ is a way to address the issue.”

Although the program is young, its results are promising. In the first cohort, 11 of 12 students completed the nine weeks of training; eight of the interns are now employed directly in the masonry trade, including three who continue at ­Woodlawn Cemetery in a follow-on 19-month paid apprenticeship program. At the outset, Woodlawn only intended to hire two apprentices in this capacity, but ended up taking three, a testament to the initial training program’s effectiveness. “These young people were not college-bound, but now they’re working in jobs at good salaries—most are making $45,000 a year with benefits,” says Sanchis.

For Luis Cruz, one of the three apprentices now employed by Woodlawn, the best part of the program is how it brought all the interns together in a shared goal—restoring and preserving relics of the past. He plans to continue working at Woodlawn and eventually pursue a career in engineering.

In addition to the Heckscher funding, WCPTP has attracted other philanthropic support, including a $30,000 grant from the New York City-based Achelis and Bodman Foundations. Executive director John Krieger says one of the initiative’s most impressive attributes is the coalition of partners supporting it. “It’s not easy to put together a program of this kind. The fact that so many high-quality organizations were willing to participate gave us confidence,” Krieger says.

WCPTP generated enough success to lead Woodlawn to explore a second cohort in the summer of 2016. All 16 students completed the program and each is on track for a job placement, including two young people who are continuing to work with Woodlawn as apprentices.

The World Monuments Fund is now looking for other U.S. cemeteries struggling to find good workers with preservation and restoration skills, so similar programs modeled on the Woodlawn pilot can be established. Local training partners and funders will be needed. And reducing the high cost per youth served, without eliminating the one-on-one attention, will be the next challenge for making this kind of program more common.