'Tree-hugger' memorial

The Baltimore Sun

The 19.8-acre Girl Scout property on Ilchester Road in Ellicott City -- visited by thousands of girls each year -- is getting a new nature center, named for Caitlin Dunbar, an ardent Girl Scout who died in 2004, when she was 15.

The Caitlin Dunbar Nature Center will have a focus on science and will include a sunflower garden that produces seeds for biofuel, observation beehives and a fossil collection. Terrapins will be raised and released.

In the days before the grand opening, scheduled for 1 p.m. Sunday, members of local Girl Scout troops have been painting murals of nature scenes on the walls, building book cases and collecting supplies. Sunday would have been Caitlin's 19th birthday.

The River Hill High School sophomore died in December 2004, less than 24 hours after being diagnosed with leukemia.

Caitlin's father, Alex Dunbar, described his daughter as a "tree hugger" who loved the outdoors. Even as a young girl, 4 or 5 years old, she would refer to trees outside the car window as "my trees" and get upset when they were later taken down to make room for development, he said.

Caitlin attended many programs at the Ilchester property, and had gotten to the level of "program aide," meaning she had leadership responsibilities.

The property has been owned by the Girl Scouts of Central Maryland since the 1940s, said Billy Heinbuch, an outdoor ranger specialist for GSCM. A building was erected in the early 1990s, but the site had no nature center.

Before working together on the Ilchester nature center, Heinbuch had collaborated with Alex Dunbar to create a nature center at Camp Conowingo, in Cecil County. That center, which opened in 2006, started as a way for Alex to use money donated in Caitlin's name.

"With the success of that, we said, 'We need something here that we can use year-round,'" Heinbuch said.

"We knew that this property was here and underutilized," Dunbar said.

The new nature center, he said, will "provide a hands-on look at nature." Girls will be able to monitor the activity of bats and bluebirds flying in and out of the houses built by Scouts.

Outside the building, a sunflower garden will be planted. Dunbar said each girl could bring home one sunflower seed to grow, and eventually "everyone in Howard County could grow one sunflower." The seeds are to be harvested for fuel.

Rain barrels will collect water for the garden. A composting center will be established.

Though Caitlin lived in Howard County and was part of a Howard County troop, she had attended Girl Scout summer camp at the Conowingo property. "One of her aspirations was to be a counselor at Conowingo," said her father.

To honor her memory, in 2006 about 30 Howard County Girl Scouts traveled to Conowingo to create a nature center in a donated trailer. One of those girls was Patti Veasey, now a freshman at Gettysburg College. Patti and Caitlin were close friends and both members of Troop 2159.

"She was always the life of our group," said Patti. "Really outgoing. Always there when you needed her."

Since it opened, the Conowingo center has had more than 3,000 visitors, Dunbar said. Over time, Scouts have added to the center, creating such things as a book of photographs showing different kinds of leaves.

"We suspect the same thing will happen here," Dunbar said. He would like to create at least five Caitlin Dunbar Nature Centers throughout Central Maryland. But the Howard County site is particularly meaningful, he said, because Caitlin was from Howard County.

"This was the next logical step," he said. "This was a way to give back to the Howard County community, which will benefit from this because it's in their backyard."

He noted that most of the Scouts working on the Howard County project did not know Caitlin. "They were drawn to the project," he said.

Each nature center will have its own focus, Dunbar said. The Howard County center will be devoted to environmental studies. "We're hoping they [the Scouts] will gain an appreciation of our tenuous relationship with nature," he said.

Gail Timmick, who was Caitlin's troop leader for three years, said the girls in her troop, including Caitlin, loved to camp, go white-water rafting and participate in other outdoor activities.

Though they traveled to Virginia, West Virginia and other locations for their activities, Howard County was their home base.

"One of the reasons Ilchester is so special, as far as it being related to Caitlin, is that she did spend so much time there," Timmick said. "This is meaningful to a lot more local girls, which is kind of neat."

ksnitkin@comcast.net

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