Tampa Monarch Project: Teacher using butterfly gardens to inspire community, students

Hillsborough County

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – A Tampa teacher is inspiring others to help the monarch butterfly by helping them create their own butterfly gardens, while working to get more in schools. 

Gloria Brooks teaches pre-K students with special needs at Collins Elementary School in Riverview.  

She is also the founder of the Tampa Monarch Project. The project builds butterfly gardens across the Tampa Bay area to create habitats for monarch butterflies, as well as create educational opportunities for students.

Brooks explained that, while working at her previous school, her boss showed her a butterfly garden. As a lifelong nature and animal lover, she was very interested. 

“She showed me how really all you need for monarch butterflies, specifically, is milkweed. So I bought my first little milkweed plant, took it home and we had our first caterpillar. Then we had our first chrysalis, our first butterfly,” she said. “I was like, ‘this is really cool.’ My kids were into it, so I’m like, ‘let’s go get more.’” 

She began doing more research on monarch butterflies and realized the species’ plight.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced in Dec. 2020 that listing the species as “threatened” or even “endangered,” was warranted but “precluded by higher priority listing actions.” It is still a candidate to be considered under the Endangered Species Act. 

“So when I realized that they were in danger, I thought, ‘what could I do to help?’ I said, ‘even if people would just like plant their own butterfly gardens, maybe [we’d be] replacing that habitat,” Brooks said. 

It was that thought that inspired The Tampa Monarch Project Facebook page, along with an Instagram account, to educate people on the importance of and what’s happening to monarch butterflies, as well as how to get your own garden started. 

“Because I didn’t know either, I just thought flowers… but you specifically need milkweed because that’s their host plant. Which means that’s the only plant on which they will lay their eggs,” Brooks said. 

She posts many photos of her own young children in the garden, as well as “how-to” videos. 

Though she’s happy to get adults started with their own butterfly gardens, she wants to focus on getting more butterfly gardens in schools. 

Brooks has had butterfly gardens at both her schools and has taught her young students many different things, but it’s not just entirely science. 

“The children are learning about butterfly life cycles. There’s science lessons and there’s language lessons in there, there’s literacy. We would, at the Montessori school, my children I would take our writing notebooks outside. The kids would write in the garden. They would practice reading out loud, we would read to the caterpillars,” she said.  

In addition to the cross-curricular benefits from a butterfly garden in school, Brooks wants to help educate students about respect for the earth as a whole.

“I just think that overall with the way our world is today, we really need to teach our youth about taking care of our planet. We need to teach our children to respect nature, to respect plants and animals and to really take care of our earth.” 

Her efforts are paying off. Two years ago, she was awarded a grant from the Tampa Bay Estuary Program and was able to build two butterfly gardens in a special needs school. Brooks said she has applied for the grant again this year.  

She was also just awarded a grant through Collins Elementary PTA to do another butterfly garden there as well.  

Brooks is also receiving attention on the national level, having recently been awarded the “National Harmony Hero” award, presented by EarthKind, which recognizes teachers across the country who inspire students from kindergarten through 12th grade with eco-education initiatives. 

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