Never Forgotten

A big effort for cemetery’s smallest graves

One July day, a young couple took a walk through Greenwood Cemetery in Brookings.

After the death of their infant daughter, Tehlula Lee, Jack and Marj Thompson were surprised at how many graves of infants at Greenwood Cemetery were marked by temporary markers.

What they found was unsettling.

Many of the gravesites for children buried at the cemetery lacked permanent markers. Some graves, decades after a child was buried there, were still identified by temporary markers.

Having recently suffered the loss of their own child, Jack and Marj Thompson took on the task of making sure that all of the children’s graves at the cemetery had permanent markers.

That was the beginning of the Tehlula Lee Foundation.

Founded in July 2010, the foundation has two goals: provide permanent headstones for the graves of children and spread the word about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, the cause of Tehlula Lee’s death before she was even 2 months old.

Now, ninety headstones later, the work continues for the Thompsons. Those first headstones took care of the need at Greenwood. Now they’ll turn their attentions to cemeteries in surrounding communities like Volga, White, and Toronto.

The foundation’s money has been raised through fund-raisers and donations.

Thanks to the efforts of the Tehlula Lee Foundation, permanent gravestones now mark the graves of infants at Greenwood Cemetery in Brookings. The foundation hopes to take its work to cemeteries in surrounding communities.

“We’ve gotten checks from all over,” Marj says. “It’s been pretty amazing.”

She reports that donations have come in from as far away as Maine, Virginia, Maryland, Oregon, and Washington.

Fund-raisers have included a coed softball tournament, a 5-K race sponsored by Powershop Gym, a burger promotion at Cubby’s Sports Bar and Grill, and a carnival hosted by day care providers.

“The response we’ve gotten from people is just awesome,” Marj says. “The turnouts are just amazing.”

In a relatively short span, the foundation has raised more than $22,000. An all-volunteer work force of friends, family, and coworkers provides all the labor.

“Every dime we have goes toward headstones and concrete,” Jack says.

Getting the message out about SIDS

Having recently suffered the loss of their own child, Lehlula Lee, Jack and Marj Thompson took on the task of making sure that all of the children’s graves at the cemetery had permanent markers.

Both Thompsons have been surprised by the number of people who approached them after the loss of their daughter to say that they, too, had lost a child to SIDS.

When he’s honest with himself, Jack admits there might not be a cure for SIDS in his lifetime. Still, he hopes the foundation’s work will at least get people thinking about SIDS.

“If the right person thinks about it,” Jack says, “then maybe the right person can put an end to it.”

While the Thompsons can only hope for an end to SIDS, they can do something about the lack of headstones and so far that effort has been gratifying.

Jack recalls a father whose child’s grave had a temporary marker. He came to the cemetery to collect that marker when the permanent gravestones were being placed and said his thanks to Jack and his crew. Jack has noticed that the father has been back at the cemetery several times since, and he wonders if those trips have been sparked by the fact that now the grave’s marker is more noticeable.

“Those kids are a little more visible now that they’ve got something above ground,” Jack says.

Children have not been forgotten

It may seem odd that a child could be buried with no permanent marker provided for the grave. At first glance, it may make the child’s parents seem forgetful or, at worst, uncaring.

The Thompsons know that’s not the case.

“Those families never forgot about those kids that are out there,” Jack says.

They believe the lack of markers isn’t caused by the parents’ lack of love, but rather by their age and lack of roots. Young people who lose a child may not have the money for a gravestone and their stay in Brookings is often limited to the time it takes to get an education.

Jack and Marj Thompson continue their work with the Tehlula Lee Foundation as a way for their children, Lily and Cash, to remember and honor their sister.

“We wanted to remember those children for them,” Jack says.

The impression that’s left on a family by a lost child is reflected in the markers the foundation places. Each one bears a rendering of Tehlula’s footprint and the message “every soul leaves a footprint.”

It’s clear, from the work her parents have chosen with the foundation, that their daughter, for one so little, has left an impressive footprint on their lives.

“It’s therapeutic in an odd sort of way,” Jack says of their work with the foundation. “There isn’t a day that goes by that we don’t think about her.”

Dana Hess

Meet the Thompsons

Jack Thompson is a student at SDSU, majoring in history with a minor in American Indian studies. He’s a peer mentor for academic success in University College. He helps with the study table at the American Indian Education and Cultural Center on campus and he works at Hamlin Pro Center in Brookings.
Marj Thompson earned her degree in consumer affairs at SDSU in 2007 and her Master of Education degree at State in 2010. She works as a first-year professional academic adviser at the Wintrode Student Success Center.
The Thompson’s children are Lily, 4; Tehlula, deceased; and Cash, born July 4, 2011.



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