Michelle Gardner-Quinn's love for nature began as a little girl, when she would spend countless hours digging in the dirt, studying insects and "exploring the miracle of life."
As a college student she traveled though Brazil, Costa Rica and South Africa, and each trip deepened her commitment to environmental activism and instilled within her a resolve to devote her life to climate control issues.
"My connection to all life forms prevents me from sitting back and watching this catastrophe" of global warming unfold, she wrote earlier this fall in an essay for an environmental studies class at the University of Vermont.
More than 650 family members, friends and former classmates filled the auditorium and cafeteria of H-B Woodlawn last Saturday for an emotional memorial service to remember Gardner-Quinn, and celebrate her vitality and passion for life.
On Oct. 7, Gardner-Quinn, who had transferred to the University of Vermont six weeks before, went out to bars in downtown Burlington to celebrate a friend’s 21st birthday, and was not seen again. After an exhaustive search, her body was found six days later off the side of a rural road 15 miles southeast of Burlington.
Brian L. Rooney, a 36-year-old construction worker pleaded not guilty last Thursday to charges that he sexually assaulted and murdered Gardner-Quinn. Rooney has been identified by Burlington police as the man seen in a video taken from a jewelry store camera speaking with Gardner-Quinn at approximately 2:30 a.m. the night she disappeared.
A solo cellist began the memorial ceremony with a somber piece that brought tears to the eyes of many in the audience, who had pinned green ribbons to their clothing in Gardner-Quinn's honor. Gardner-Quinn had played the cello many times on the same stage as a member of the school's orchestra.
Minutes later the audience rose and sang "Amazing Grace," Gardner-Quinn's favorite hymn during her time as a member of the Church of the Covenant's choir. On either end of the stage sat large pictures of Gardner-Quinn, taken by her parents the day before she disappeared.
Friends and relatives said during the ceremony that they were devastated by the sudden and tragic loss of the vivacious 21-year-old.
"Michelle's absence leaves a big hole in many lives," said Rev. Bill Hoffman, pastor at the Church of the Covenant in North Arlington.
"She touched so many lives in such a short period of time," added Hoffman, who presided over the ceremony at H-B Woodlawn, where Gardner-Quinn graduated fin 2003.
Gardner-Quinn had found her niche in Burlington, though she had only been on campus for six weeks, friends and relatives said. She had joined outdoors and feminist clubs and was active in promoting awareness of global warming.
“She was delighted to come to University of Vermont,” her mother, Diane Gardner-Quinn, said in a press conference in Burlington after she was abducted. “She loved her professors and classes… Everything about her life was happy.”
Yasmine Rassam, Gardner-Quinn's half-sister, read excerpts from a personal statement Gardner-Quinn wrote for an environmental studies class. In the essay she stated her desire to "settle down" at University of Vermont after traveling abroad so frequently and "explore internally" her goals for life.
The school has the ecology department and resources "to inspire me," she wrote. "Now is the time to apply myself... and to give back."
Friends said she was so excited about the school because it allowed her to snowboard in the nearby mountains and had a thriving art scene.
"Michelle's life was really coming together, and the University of Vermont was an exciting place for her to integrate her piecemeal interests," Hoffman said.
Her brother, Paul Noel Rassam, gave a powerful speech that focused on the idealism his sister possessed and her desire to make the world a better place.
She was "a sharp, compassionate, globe-trotting adult," he said. "It's one thing to have ideals and beliefs, and another to act on them."
"You knew yourself Michelle and knew what you wanted to do," he added. "You were so complete. You are so complete."
Other friends remarked on her ability to meld the artistic and athletic aspects of her personality. Ian Wilson, Alison Bell and Georgeanne Usova all recited poems written by Gardner-Quinn.
Stephanie Lewis, who played on a travel soccer team with Gardner-Quinn, remembered that Gardner-Quinn was always the calm and collected teammate who "kept things in perspective," but was still able to make everyone laugh.
"What a cheerful, bright, level-headed spirit Michelle was," Lewis said. "She brought so much joy to our lives."
Rev. Hoffman urged the audience to take away something positive from the "tragic loss." The community must celebrate Michelle's numerous gifts and accomplishments, and continue to support her family during this difficult time, he said.
Several speakers stressed the importance of keeping alive Gardner-Quinn's legacy of promoting environmental causes.
"I and others will continue to follow your activism and strength for preserving mother Earth," said Yasmine Rassam.