- The Washington Times - Monday, June 2, 2008

BURLINGTON, Vt. - At the University of Vermont, there are plaques in her name, a scholarship in the offing and a safety-awareness campaign for students borne in part from her murder.

In New Orleans, Michelle’s Earth Foundation volunteers are planting sunflower seeds in her memory.

On YouTube, a video showcasing an essay written by the budding environmental activist days before she died - featuring Goldie Hawn and other celebrities reading excerpts - remains a popular fixture.

The case of Vermont student Michelle Gardner-Quinn was tragic, but a legacy blossoming from it holds promise for those she left behind - and those who never knew her.

“She’s become an inspiration for many people, maybe because of the tragic nature of her death,” said Cecilia Danks, an environmental studies professor who taught her. “I think the fact that she was young, and yet so clearly committed, was an inspiration to people.”

Miss Gardner-Quinn, a 21-year-old environmental studies major from Arlington, had just transferred to the University of Vermont in 2006 when she was raped and slain by a stranger after a chance meeting on a downtown street that started when she asked to borrow his cell phone.

The brutal, random nature of the killing rattled the 12,000-student university.

“The heartache was significant,” said Annie Stevens, assistant vice president for student and campus life. “There was a substantial number of campus faculty and staff who were incredibly shook by her murder. It shook everyone to the core, that this could actually happen here, to one of our students, in a city where we think the community is everything.”

But it didn’t take long for the university, which already had a network of student safety and sexual violence awareness programs in place, to revisit them.

Shortly after the killing, University President Dan Fogel announced a campus anti-violence initiative and established a President’s Commission on Social Change, which in turn led to the creation of “Think, Care, Act,” a campaign that publicizes - in posters, handout cards and T-shirts - the resources available to students on issues of sexual violence, substance abuse and bias crimes.

“Our campus was already doing an awful lot on these issues,” said LuAnn Rolley, director of the University of Vermont Women’s Center. “Her murder really has just strengthened it, though that sounds horrible to say. It’s made us step back and say ‘Let’s look at it from a broader perspective.’”

Meanwhile, donations from friends and family members of Miss Gardner-Quinn and University of Vermont alumni in the Washington area poured in and have been used to leverage other money for a scholarship that will be awarded beginning in 2009.

Established by her parents, Diane Gardner Quinn and John-Charles Quinn, the $4,000 annual scholarship will go to a non-first-year student who has demonstrated a commitment to the environment. The name of the scholarship is still being worked out, said Alan Ryea, director of alumni and parent programs for the university.

“It’s amazing the strength they’ve brought to the table when we talk about ways to remember their daughter. They’re a remarkable family,” Mr. Ryea said.

Meanwhile, environmental studies students - some of whom never knew her - planted a plum tree in her memory near their dorm, accompanied by one of two memorial plaques on the campus. “Always Remembered, Michelle Gardner-Quinn, 1985-2006,” the one by the plum tree reads.

At Bittersweet, the building that houses the university’s environmental program, a photo of Miss Gardner-Quinn’s 2006 class is on display in the lobby, with her image highlighted. “We miss you” reads the inscription. “And we rededicate ourselves to caring for the environment and each other in your memory.”

Miss Gardner-Quinn’s legacy stretches beyond her old school.

The Michelle’s Earth Foundation - a nonprofit established in her name - has been formed in Arlington to push for environmental education for young people, champion “home conservation” projects and develop environmental community stewardship programs.

One of its efforts has been to plant sunflowers in New Orleans in hopes of decontaminating soil by removing lead through a process known as phytoremediation, even though scientists have dismissed as urban myth the notion that the process can remove enough lead to make a difference.

“We don’t claim one round of sunflowers is going to make everything good,” said Gail Fendley, a spokeswoman for the foundation, which has planted more than 25,000 sunflower seeds in New Orleans.

Miss Gardner-Quinn’s legacy has also blossomed through a YouTube video produced in 2007 in which celebrities recited lines from “This I Believe,” her essay about her love for the Earth.

The 60-second video, which features Miss Hawn, Sarah Ferguson, Tipper Gore, Meg Ryan and others holding a framed color portrait of a smiling Miss Gardner-Quinn and reading from the essay, ends with her mother saying “And I believe that my daughter can still change the world.”

Around here, some think she already has.

During a recent training session for University of Vermont students who will serve as orientation leaders next fall, students paid close attention to the campus safety portion.

“They were on the edge of their seats. Three years ago, they wouldn’t have taken that session seriously,” Miss Stevens said.

Miss Danks, her former professor, says Miss Gardner-Quinn’s interest in climate change has prompted her to redirect her research program to address the interaction of community forestry and climate change.

Her family has been heartened by the good that has emerged from something so bad.

After a jury convicted killer Brian Rooney, 37, in her death May 22, Miss Gardner-Quinn’s mother alluded to the initiatives inspired by her daughter.

“Michelle has not been with us for 20 months as a living person,” she said, standing outside the courtroom. “But her living spirit has been with us every day. And her living spirit can be seen in all the good works that are being done in her name.”

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