by David Stone
Christina Delfico stood along a small circle of children, wind sending their hair flying as they turned their heads up to listen.
“We’ve already lost 95% of our monarch butterfly population,” she explained. She paused long enough to put her arm around the shoulder of a girl next to her. “That’s like, something happens, and we’re the only ones left.”
Delfico is the founder of iDig2Learn, an organization that teaches kids, and some adults, that getting their hands dirty is good for them. She explained, as directly as she could, the plight of the monarch, one of nature’s most attractive – and disappearing – wonders.
In getting their hands dirty, the children that Delfico draws into her program learn secrets of nature first-hand, by touching, feeling, and observing, often plunging little fingers into dirt. At last Saturday’s monarch butterfly event, she led her kids and a contingent of adult volunteers in an initiative to help remedy the continuing disaster that she described.
The Monarch Butterfly Corridor Project on Roosevelt Island is a habitat restoration project. It’s a community effort to do our part in rectifying a primary cause behind the monarch population decline by planting a milkweed garden along their seasonal migration corridor.
Milkweed, the iDig2Learn children were taught, is the only host on which monarchs lay eggs. It also serves as the butterflies’ food source.
Last Saturday, a small army of Roosevelt Islanders braved a cool morning, with puffy clouds carried by steady winds, to warm Lighthouse Park with vigorous, proactive work.
Volunteers Vicki Feinmel and Judy Buck opened the supports at a sign-in table under a bright warming sun. By day’s end, brisker weather forced Buck and an impromptu band of volunteers to chase papers scattered by a gust across the park’s open meadow.
Temperatures in the low fifties, increasing clouds, and winds whipping across the choppy waters of Hell Gate, did little to dampen the spirits of children engaged in the project – nor the adults, plenty of whom found it irresistible to get their own hands dirty.
Slats of wood had already set out the borders of the milkweed garden just inside green space south of the lighthouse. Delfico’s young charges hauled bags of soil to fill the box in preparation. Others carried milkweed plants in plastic containers. Then the fun began.
Children, for whom city life offers few chances to get below the surfaces of streets and lawns, plunged eager fingers into the freshly laid soil. Tools for digging were most often ignored in favor of the pleasures of dirt in their hands.
Supported by grants from Grow to Learn, the Citizens Committee of NYC, and City Gardens Club of New York City, this project will give monarch butterflies an abundant waystation along their twice-annual migration path between Mexico and Canada, a place for passing strangers with beautiful wings to catch a free meal, courtesy of Roosevelt Island’s iDig2Learn kids, their grownup helpers, and sponsors.
While milkweed plants were being introduced to their new home, tables nearby, provided by the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC), offered space for Bintou Cisse, Alexandria Soto, and Adelina Bracero, Girl Scouts sponsored by the Roosevelt Island Beacon Youth Program, to collect donations for plants to beautify the Senior Center.
Nearby, Liyan Chen, a face painter, decorated an endless line of children with monarch wing designs, and refreshments from coffee to bananas waited to fortify the busy gardeners.
On the lawn, Eva Bosbach, Roosevelt Island Parents’ Network Coordinator, spread out books for children while telling stories aloud to others gathered on the grass. Steps away, a small plot of fresh soil was attacked by several kids in a fossil dig.
To the south, at the edge of the meadow, another garden was being dug by another troop of young hands. Beneath the shelter of a tree, they planted daffodils donated by New Yorkers for Parks.
All this coordinated activity attests to Delfico’s energy and skills at bringing together diverse resources to provide children with hands-on education, using plant life while promoting green spaces. With so much going on, she spent the morning hurrying among activities to make sure all involved had the resources they needed to stay busy.
With the garden planted, many lingered to enjoy Lighthouse Park, too often underused after summer. Lori Lichtman, acting director of development for the Citizens Committee of New York City, dodged boys running after a soccer ball while handing out T-shirts that commemorated the event.
Other groups posed for photos, and volunteers folded up chairs and tables to be rolled on a wagon back to RIOC.
Her day not yet finished, Delfico headed toward the community garden, where club members were supporting her group’s efforts by planting more milkweed nearby.
The benefits of the monarch butterfly initiative are many. There is the obvious, children given a rare opportunity to learn while sinking their hands into nature; and the more subtle, good-will and recognition for the community from outside.
Now that hands have been washed, and the stories of adventure have been replaced by homework and football, a legacy will continue.
Twice a year, Roosevelt Island will be blessed as monarch butterflies stop by to sample local milkweed and, through iDig2Learn’s efforts, the community will contribute to stabilizing and even increasing their beneficiaries’ population.