What started with the volunteer efforts of two women has transformed Pima County's once-neglected, trash-strewn cemetery for the indigent into a peaceful resting place.

Friends Vickie Berg and Marilyn Reed first learned about Pauper's Field in late 2011 when they attended a service for illegal immigrants there.

Trees and plants were dead. Trash was strewn about the county cemetery, the final resting place for those whose families can't afford burials, homeless people who die in the streets and illegal immigrants who die crossing the desert. The women started picking up trash at the cemetery to honor those buried there.

Berg, who had worked as a court-appointed guardian for indigent mentally ill in Minneapolis before coming to Tucson, said she bonded with the souls whose bodies or cremains were all around her. Intent on doing more, she met with county officials and shared her concerns about sunken-in graves and headstones covered under dirt. She said the people buried there deserved some landscaping and maintenance. And a sculpture would be nice, she added.

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry agreed and acknowledged that the county needed to take better care of the cemetery.

Changes began.

A renovation, which cost nearly $60,000, included the work of landscape designer Jessie Byrd, who directed the planting of about 300 desert plants. Sunken-in ground was leveled.

The irrigation system was redone. Dead trees were removed. Headstones were exposed and cleaned.

Granite headstones or crosses mark about 4,000 graves that are defined neatly in rows.

Mesquite trees, ocotillos and cacti blooming with pink and yellow flowers are part of the landscape. Palo verde trees covered in yellow blooms are in the distance, adding a natural touch to the cemetery on 5 acres near a wash at the west end of Evergreen Cemetery, near West Miracle Mile and North Oracle Road.

A three-panel steel, rustic sculpture created by artist Ray Rizzo was recently installed at midpoint, along a perimeter of the cemetery near a ramada. A new American flag unfurls on a pole nearby.

One panel depicts a dove with an olive branch. The second has a message: Gone but not forgotten. And the third has a saguaro.

A recent visitor hung a white-beaded rosary on one of the saguaro's arms.

Benches provide seating for those who visit their loved ones.

"The energy here is so different," said Berg, 60.

The county's yearly budget is $250,000 for indigent burials and cremations, and $25,000 for maintenance.

Since April 2012, 42 people have been buried at the cemetery and 402 have been cremated. Of the cremations, 146 were John Does and Jane Does, said county Public Fiduciary Philip H. Grant.

The county is responsible for laying them all to rest. In 1955, the county first purchased land from Evergreen Cemetery to do so, acquiring property over the years.

Responsibility for caring for Pauper's Field won't change, but it will have a new unofficial caretaker. Berg plans to go there once a month to pick up trash, put flowers upright and make sure all is in place.

"My heart is at peace," she said of her visits to Pauper's Field these days. "I no longer go there and feel disturbed souls. Everything feels peaceful."

Contact reporter Carmen Duarte at 573-4104 or cduarte@azstarnet.com