A place to learn and remember

The Baltimore Sun

Francesca Borrelli Johnson had a passion for the environment, for cleaning streams in Baltimore County and working to help the world around her.

Her death in 2004 kept the 35-year-old from fulfilling her ambitions, but her dream of protecting the environment will live on when the Francesca Borrelli Johnson Wetlands Classroom opens next Sunday at the Hashawha Environmental Center near Westminster.

A building that was once used for storage will host students, who will examine the plants and animals that live in the center's streams and ponds.

"We hope that it will further her memory," said Niel Borrelli, Johnson's father, who lives with his wife, JoAnne, in Westminster. "She'd be real happy to see that there are people learning. That's what she wanted."

Johnson died in December 2004 of injuries suffered in a car accident. Her parents established a fund in her name, and the money raised since then has gone into scholarships - and subsidized much of the cost of Hashawha's wetlands classroom.

The classroom occupies a room in a barn that sits on a hill overlooking Lake Hashawha, the largest of the center's three man-made lakes. From the building, a nearby wooden ramp leads to a boardwalk that crosses through the wetlands and leads to the water.

The wetlands, which were also man-made, have grown into a self-sustaining ecosystem, a habitat for numerous species of plant and wildlife.

Hashawha offers classes and programs that delve into subjects such as stream ecology, the wetlands and the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

The center also is home to the county's Outdoor School, a weeklong program that county officials said is attended by about 98 percent of Carroll County's sixth-graders.

Students, mostly elementary- and middle-school age, will use the classroom, said Melissa Boyle, who manages Hashawha.

"It has been designed with the kids in mind," she said. "This classroom's going to be used for such a wide age group that we want it to be kind of flexible."

The building is not furnished, but Boyle said she is looking to add laboratory benches, cabinets and seats - with the possibility of wheeled benches that would enable staffers to turn the room into a large, open space.

Two walls are adorned with large plywood puzzle pieces, cut out in 1993 when the Hashawha's Bear Branch Nature Center opened. They had been stored in the nature center's attic, and were dusted off and decorated with paintings of animals and scenery.

Other interior decorations include 10 framed photographs - all of wetlands plants and animals at Hashawha - taken and donated by McDaniel College mathematics professor Robert Boner.

The Borrellis have invited those who donated money or provided services to a private function Saturday. The event will include a groundbreaking for the next phase in the project - a greenhouse that will be connected to the classroom.

Niel Borrelli said he hopes to have the greenhouse completed by the end of summer. But in the meantime, he said, the classroom will have an impact.

"The kids will have a place to sit and digest and study the wetlands environment," he said. "Francesca will be remembered. They'll look up and see her picture. They'll probably ask who she was, and that's good."

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