LOS ANGELES – All too often, the ring of Debi Faris-Cifelli's (search) cell phone means there is another abandoned newborn at the morgue, another forsaken child for her to name and bury in a shoebox-size coffin under a white cross in the California desert.
Last week, though, Faris-Cifelli — who has had to rely on donations, grants and fund-raisers to give babies a decent burial — got a very different call.
She had won the California lottery.
The jackpot: $27 million.
"Maybe it's the children saying, 'Thank you' for taking care of them when nobody else would," Faris-Cifelli said, bubbling with laughter. "It's a gift and one for which we feel an awesome responsibility."
The money could not come at a better time for Faris-Cifelli and her Garden of Angels (search), the tiny cemetery in the town of Calimesa where she has buried dozens of tiny children whose mothers didn't hear — or didn't care — about California's safe-haven law (search).
Under the 2001 law, parents have three days to abandon infants without fear of prosecution. California is one of 46 states with such a law.
Faris-Cifelli helped win passage of the law and has made it her life's work to spread the word that scared and confused parents should drop their newborns at firehouses and hospitals — not in trash cans and alleys. She lobbies in states without such laws, talks to teens and police and has attended 12 trials of mothers accused of abandoning their infants. She also lays the dead to rest.
Faris-Cifelli, 49, does all that with just a three-person staff and $172,000 annual budget covered by donations, grants, car washes and bake sales.
Now the deeply religious mother and her high school counselor husband, Steve, will receive an after-tax lump sum of nearly $9 million. Some of the winnings will go to the couple's seven children, most to her crusade.
It was only the third time she and her husband had played the lottery.
Since the safe-haven law went into effect four years ago, only 67 babies have been safely surrendered in California. Faris-Cifelli has buried 70 babies since she began in 1996. Since the law was enacted, she has buried fewer each year — though no one knows how many have died.
"This law does work, but it works when there is some kind of campaign going along with it," Faris-Cifelli said. "It just hurts me that we don't talk about it until there's a baby who's lost its life."
The state budgets about $1.5 million for advertising — not enough to buy even one statewide TV spot, according to Andrew Roth, spokesman for the California Department of Social Services.
When someone finds a dead baby in a three-county area around Los Angeles, the morgue knows to call Faris-Cifelli. Faris-Cifelli goes into the autopsy room alone, where she wraps each infant in a homemade quilt, cradles it and prays over it. She gives each baby a first name that is engraved on the cross. At the gravesite, she releases dozens of doves under the shade of a mulberry tree.
Babies whose remains go unclaimed are cremated, and their ashes placed in a small cardboard box and saved for three years before being put in an unmarked grave with other John and Jane Does.
Faris-Cifelli and her husband are full of ideas of how to spend their new fortune: 140 annual scholarships named after abandoned babies, more efforts to educate the public, and possibly a shelter for pregnant teens.
"If the little kids up there are dancing in heaven and are happy for us, then that's the way it should be," Steve Cifelli said. "They're saying, `We want you to do more,' and we're going to do it."
Karen Moan of Victorville, who adopted one of the first babies surrendered under the safe-haven law, sees more than coincidence in her friend's good fortune.
"Everybody wants to win the lottery, but she truly deserves to win," Moan said. "It seems like it was meant to be."