Like so many people, Pamela Helbling-Schafer’s first exposure to the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery was shrouded in grief.
“My first husband actually was in the National Guard,” she says. “He passed away in March of 2003 from lung cancer. And he was buried here.”
In the months following her husband’s interment, she heard from the then-director of the cemetery. “He kept in touch with me and asked if I’d come help out. And who wouldn’t accept that honor?”
She came to work full time in the fall of 2003. Now she’s in her eighth year as director — overseeing 35 acres of hallowed ground, over 500 burials each year, and a team of people who take the work very seriously.
“There are no re-dos out here,” she explains. “so when they’re doing a burial, they have to make sure everything is done properly, effectively, and efficiently the first time.”
Helbling-Schafer walks the narrow avenues of the cemetery often, keeping an eye out for wear and tear on any of the 7,000 or so headstones — and reflecting on her own connection to this place.
“I know what it’s like to lose a spouse,” she says. “I do have family members buried here as well, as well as lots of friends, unfortunately. So this job isn’t just work. It’s my heart and soul.”
She says those two things — heart and soul — are at the core of her work. Because even though she’s in the business of burials, every ceremony is sacred. “It’s not going through the motions. It’s sometimes the first time folks have been here — their first time experiencing what they’re going through. And we have to be there for them,” she says.
“It can’t be regiment. It has to be wholeheartedly heartfelt in all of the assistance we provide them.”
That’s why Pamela Helbling-Schafer is Someone You Should Know.
Earlier this fall, Governor Doug Burgum honored Helbling-Schafer with the Harvest Award for Excellence in Quality.