SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — Up a short winding road, tucked behind a refuge of trees, the Old Mission Cemetery suffered from upkeep--wildflowers and grasses had grown unchecked after the recent rains.
But this week, the cemetery got a spring cleaning when a group of seven boys took time from their school break to fix up the historical grounds, established around the 1850s.
Unknown to many outside the close-knit San Juan Capistrano community, the two-acre historical site is a virtual who's who of south Orange County history, with many of the area's founders buried in the cemetery.
The more than 400 crosses, crypts and headstones, which date from a century ago to present day, bear the names of some of the people who helped create San Juan Capistrano, including members of the Rios, Yorba, Forster, Lobo and Belardes families.
Because the cemetery is so old, many grave markers are bare, but Mission San Juan Capistrano officials believe that some Juaneno Mission Indians as well as early Spanish and French settlers are also buried there.
"There's a lot of tradition and heritage here," said San Juan Capistrano resident David Belardes, who has great-grandparents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings and other relatives at the cemetery.
Even though the mission owns and maintains the land, it relies on volunteers and family members of those buried at the cemetery to help with the upkeep, mission administrator Jerry Miller said.
The volunteers took shovels, picks and garbage bags to clean up the cemetery. Seven boys from the city's gang prevention program, Community Service Programs, and several community members cleared grass and overgrown vegetation.
The work was meant to prevent vandalism, which has plagued the cemetery in the past couple of years, and to reduce the danger of fire, officials said.
For the youths cleaning the cemetery, the project was a lesson in history, in hard work and in helping others.
"The best thing about it is working and doing things for the community," Jesus Garcia, 12, said while hacking wild grass with a hoe. "I like to work. This is not hard for me."
Volunteer Ilse Byrnes said the cleanup effort was a good experience for the boys and a benefit to the community.
"It teaches them history and respect," said Byrnes, who is also a commissioner on the city's Parks, Recreation and Equestrian Commission. "It's a good community project. They get something out of it and the community gets a lot back."
Located east of the mission and across Interstate 5, the burial site is an extension of the cemetery found on the mission grounds off Camino Capistrano, which is the oldest one in Orange County.
After the great earthquake of 1812, which killed 40 people, the mission's cemetery filled quickly.
Today, only relatives of city's founding fathers are allowed to be buried at the cemetery because space is at a premium.