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The Pen Is Mightier

The words of a slain Arlingtonian live on after her death.

In October of last year, the body of 21-year-old Michelle Gardner-Quinn was found on the side of a road outside of Burlington, Vt. The Arlington native and H-B Woodlawn alumna had been kidnapped, raped and murdered only six weeks after transferring to the University of Vermont.

This gruesome discovery marked the end of a six-day search and it also marked the end of Gardner-Quinn’s all-too-short life.

But, thanks to her friends, family and several powerful celebrities, her legacy has only just begun.

Just two days before her kidnapping, Gardner-Quinn wrote an essay titled "This I Believe" for her environmental studies class. In it, she discussed her love for nature and her fears that humans are destroying the environment by bringing about catastrophic climate change.

"I believe that my connection to all life forms prevents me from sitting back and watching this catastrophe," she wrote. "In honor of all life, I am dedicating myself to preventing this worldwide ecological crisis."

The essay was read by the instructor of the class, Professor Cecilia Danks, at a memorial service and was later reprinted by Vermont Quarterly magazine.

IT WAS THERE that Kevin Wall and his wife Susan Smalley discovered Gardner-Quinn’s impassioned and eloquent words.

Wall is a film producer and, along with former Vice President Al Gore, was the organizer of the recent Live Earth concerts, which sought to bring attention to the problem of global warming.

Wall and Smalley’s son attends the University of Vermont and they were in Burlington for parent’s weekend when the kidnapping occurred.

When Wall and Smalley read the essay, they decided to feature it in their upcoming global concert event. According to Gardner-Quinn’s mother, Diane Gardner-Quinn, Tipper Gore was the one who suggested that it be turned into a film.

Filmmaker Damon Cason was approached by Smalley to produce the minute-long clip. He said that, after reading the essay, he realized that "It’s a woman’s story. The piece needed to be read by women."

After a frantic search, Cason was able to contact several prominent female celebrities who could give a voice to Gardner-Quinn’s words.

The film features Goldie Hawn, her daughter Kate Hudson, Sheryl Crow, and Tipper Gore, herself, reading passages from the essay.

Diane Gardner-Quinn is featured at the end of the film. Holding a portrait of her slain daughter, she says to the camera "And I believe that my daughter can still change the world."

THE FILM was shown at the Live Earth concerts, which were held in eight cities around the world. The essay was also read this past weekend by Danks on NPR’s weekly program Weekend Edition.

For the friends and family of Gardner-Quinn, the essay serves as a reminder of all the things she stood for.

"She really did have a vision and purpose when it came to the environment," said Rachele Huennekens, a close friend of Gardner-Quinn’s who has helped to start the environmental activist group Michelle’s Earth Foundation in her honor. "It was an important message and she would have wanted it to get out there."

Diane Gardner-Quinn agreed and said that she believes that her daughter would have been pleased with the journey her words and thoughts have taken.

"To have this essay be a part of the Live Earth extravaganza was very special," she said, "Because I thought it was something she would have wanted to be a part of."

In the end, the essay’s true legacy is that it has posthumously added another chapter to a life that ended on a truly horrific note. Danks said that she hopes Gardner-Quinn’s essay will overshadow her untimely death.

"It’s great that she’s being remembered for her beliefs and commitments rather than the tragic way she died," Danks said.