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On butterfly wings

Nature connects families across continents

Glenn Rosenholm
Eastern Region
June 5, 2024

A child wearing cutout butterfly wings looks at a live monarch butterfly resting on his hand.
A child releasing a monarch during the annual September Monarch Butterfly Release, a celebration of a season of science, monarchs, and community-level conservation. (USDA Forest Service photo by Michael Rizo

“We try to inspire children through nature-based themes,” Sinead Abarca said. “We have a primary focus on the monarch butterfly, a strong cultural symbol in the community.”

Abarca works with preschoolers and staff in her local Chicago community through El Valor, a nonprofit organization that serves 4,000 children, adults with disabilities, and their families.

To help families connect – with each other and nature – Valor hosts an annual Monarch Butterfly Conservation Program in collaboration with USDA Forest Service.

“One effective way to connect children with the outdoors is to foster the connection between culture and nature,” said Abarca. “In the Chicago area we have people from Mexico and throughout Latin America. They truly make that connection about bird and monarch butterfly migrations.”

Abarca herself grew up in Michoacan, Mexico, near where most of the monarch butterflies famously overwinter before departing on their annual spring flight across much of eastern North America, including Chicago.

A young boy in a caterpillar costume stands in front of other children in costumes. A young girl wearing homemade butterfly wings stand in a group of other butterfly-costumed children.
A child in a caterpillar costume prepares for the annual El Valor monarch butterfly parade down the sidewalks of Chicago in April 2013. The tradition continues nearly a decade later as El Valor students and staff in butterfly costumes celebrate the fall migration of the monarch during the annual Butterfly Release event in September 2022. (USDA Forest Service photos by Michael Rizo

To engage children and the community, Abarca and El Valor plant milkweed and raise butterflies with local schools and families. Participants collect Monarch butterfly eggs, carefully raise the caterpillars to adulthood, and release them during the summer. The season closes with a celebration each September.

“The children dress up as monarch butterflies and caterpillars, and we release the last monarchs raised in the classrooms and at home that will begin their journey back to Mexico, where their great grandmothers overwintered,” Abarca added.

The descendants of the butterflies the children in Chicago release each year may be seen by their extended family members and friends in Central and South America in following seasons.

“The children love it, and the parents love it even more,” said Abarca. “We work in multiple sites with large Hispanic populations, especially those from Mexico. They connect their own stories of migration with that of the monarch.”

 A woman in a butterfly costume stand in front of a banner with the El Valor and Forest Service logos that says: Butterfly Release 2023.
Sinead Abarca poses in front of the El Valor Monarch Butterfly Release event poster in 2023. (USDA Forest Service photo by Michael Rizo

Inspired by summer camp

Born in Mexico, Abarca moved to Chicago as a young child. There, she grew up in an impoverished predominantly Hispanic community without the financial means to attend summer camp. Her introduction to nature was made possible through an El Valor partnership with the Forest Service, which sponsored camps and field trips to natural areas like the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.  

“On the Midewin, I remember bunkers, tall grass, and critters everywhere. It was really fun,” said Abarca. “I learned from that experience I liked working with others, and I was motivated and inspired to do what I do now in early childhood education.”

Abarca credits her lifelong love of nature, an affinity she shares with her students to this day, with her childhood experience of attending Forest Service funded, nature-based summer camps. And these experiences led her to working with the Forest Service International Program’s partnership with El Valor in her community.

“I think my experiences at the summer camp helped me to realize I wanted to be a teacher. I kept what I experienced as a child, and I pass on those values today to my children to go outside and explore,” said Abarca. “I let them get outside and get dirty, and I encourage my teachers to do the same.”

A line of children in butterfly costumes walk along a city street with their parents. Paper kites decorated with hand-painted butterflies are displayed on strings.
Left: El Valor children, parents, and staff celebrate the return of monarch butterflies during their annual Día del Niño parades and celebrations which are held in four different communities of Chicago each spring. Right: Commemorative butterfly kites on display during the annual El Valor monarch butterfly release event in Chicago in September 2022. (USDA Forest Service photos by Michael Rizo)

Nature Connects Us

Abarca and El Valor are not alone. Forest Service International Programs supports community engagement programs with a focus on the Monarch butterfly habitat and preservation throughout the butterfly’s migration path across North America and Central America. Some of these partnerships include the Xerces Society, Monarch Joint Venture, World Wildlife Fund – Mexico, Protección de la Fauna Mexicana, A.C. (Profauna) and the Correo Real Program, Alternare, A.C., and Fondo para la Conservación del Eje Neovolcánico, A.C. (FOCEN).

Whether through witnessing intercontinental butterfly migration, mountain watersheds supplying drinking water for millions, or sharing the shade of a tree in an urban park, nature connects us all.

What’s your connection?