Ellen Marie Roche was 8 years old when she got her first rabbit, a Netherland Dwarf, and joined the Carroll County 4-H Rabbit Club.
"It's all she wanted to do," said her stepmother, Carolyn Roche, who recalled that before long the family's basement was teeming with as many as 100 rabbits, in addition to the horse and goat in their Reisterstown back yard.
"She was very giving and very kind," Carolyn said, unable to hold back tears last week as she gave a tour of the rabbit barn that will be dedicated in Ellen's honor during this year's 109th Carroll County 4-H & FFA Fair at the Agriculture Center in Westminster. "That's probably part of the reason she's not here with us anymore."
Ellen, who was active in 4-H throughout her childhood, died in 2001 after participating in a Johns Hopkins medical study of how the lungs of healthy people work differently from those of asthmatics. She was 24.
Her family established the Ellen Marie Roche Memorial Fund Inc., a nonprofit foundation that has awarded about $300,000 in scholarships since 2002 to students interested in veterinary medicine, animal management, biology or medicine.
At the time of her death, Ellen Roche was a research technician at the Baltimore hospital's allergy and asthma center and was taking graduate classes in the evenings. She had earned a degree in biology from Frostburg State University in 1998.
Her lifelong aspiration was to become a veterinarian, said her father, Bernard J. Roche Jr., who became the fair's photographer when Ellen was 6 years old.
In addition to establishing the scholarship fund in Ellen's honor, the family has used funds from a settlement with Hopkins - the terms of which prohibit the Roches from discussing its amount - to cover about $200,000 of the costs associated with building the rabbit barn scheduled to be dedicated in a ceremony on Sunday, July 30 at 3:30 p.m.
The barn was built to honor Ellen and Deanna Roche, Bernard's first wife who died of cancer in 1991 and was an avid rabbit breeder, Bernard Roche said.
Deanna was an adult adviser to the Carroll County 4-H Rabbit Club and a member of the Carroll County Adult Rabbit Club.
Ellen, who was a member of Carroll County 4-H Rabbit Club until she was 18 and continued to volunteer with the group as an adult, helped develop the Chocolate Mini-Rex and the Giant Angora breeds, her father said.
"The kids are going to love it," Bernard Roche said of the barn that will give children a place to exhibit their rabbits during the annual fair and at shows throughout the rest of the year.
During last year's fair, the rabbit club raised about $1,000 in a silent auction to plant landscaping around the barn.
Businesses and individuals have donated an estimated $50,000 and hundreds of hours of time to help construct the 3,520-square-foot barn. The new facility is about four times the size of the space where rabbits used to be shown during the county fair, according to the Roches and Kevin Brown, a general contractor who estimates he has donated at least 500 hours toward the project.
"When we started, we wanted to revamp [the old] building," Carolyn Roche said. "But then that building was razed to make room for the [Danele Shipley Arena]."
The barn's features include 15 large windows and three ceiling fans that will help keep the building well ventilated, insulated wood walls, concrete flooring with drainage, sinks and a bathroom - all vast improvements over the rabbit club's former accommodations, the Roches said.
"The rabbit building is kind of exciting for the kids," said Royce Wagner, the fair board's chairman. "The people involved have helped a lot to get that built. It's awesome."
With overwhelming growth in the number of children participating in 4-H and the fair, the larger facility is a welcome addition and supports the fair's goal of providing a fun and exciting learning environment, Wagner said.
Interest has blossomed at such a tremendous rate that fair organizers are outgrowing the $5.5 million Shipley Arena, a 52,500-square-foot building with a show ring and enough room to exhibit 1,000 animals. Tents are being purchased to house several of the fair's exhibits, he said.
Although the tents are an additional expense, it's money well spent as far as Wagner is concerned.
"How do you turn away the kids? You can't do it. They work so hard all year," he said.
"This is not only for kids [to show off their animals], but for the public to come and learn about agriculture and to see what the kids are doing," said Wagner, who added that this year's fair is expected to include more than 800 exhibitors and nearly 18,500 exhibits.
During this year's fair, more than 900 Carroll County youth are expected to showcase more than 16,000 agricultural exhibits featuring knowledge, creative talents and leadership skills learned through 4-H and FFA, fair organizers said.
At the rabbit barn, nearly 300 rabbits are expected to be showcased.