Nursing home nurtures butterflies



There are butterflies in the basement of Vincentian de Marillac, a nursing home in Stanton Heights.

But no one is worried. Residents raised the insects from tiny caterpillars and were excited about seeing them fly to freedom.

The group of seniors were gathered around a table, eagerly waiting to see the butterflies they nurtured spread their wings.

Aimi Long, director of volunteers and activities at Vincentian de Marillac, walked around the room carrying a box of the five recently hatched butterflies.

Even from across the room, it was easy to catch a glimpse of their orange and black wings through the plastic container. Everyone loved seeing the butterflies close up, including some employees who came down to get a peek.

It was just an hour before they would be released into the wild.

The project began last year with the creation of a butterfly garden on the deck of the facility. Containers were filled with plants that butterflies need for nectar and use as host plants for their young. The garden was planted with zinnias, butterfly weed, Joe Pye weed, asters and others.

Ms. Long's daughter, Brooke Pegher, inspired the project. Her work with butterflies is part of her master's thesis for ecology. She is a science teacher at Riverview High School.

Ms. Long thought that residents would be able to relate to butterflies.

"This is one of those life experiences that they get to have memories with," she said. "Almost everyone has done some form of gardening, so this is a wonderful opportunity for them to actually get their hands right into the dirt.

"To be part of something and experience the continuation of something is very important to the seniors."

Agnes Dougherty, a resident, found raising butterflies to be a fascinating project.

"I enjoyed learning about the butterflies," she said.

Several weeks ago, a small cup filled with five caterpillars arrived in the mail at the facility. They fed on plants for two weeks then each made a chrysalis.

A little more than a week later, the butterflies began to hatch. Residents watched with interest as the metamorphosis neared completion.

"It was really incredible to see the look on their faces as they realized these creatures went from little caterpillars to these beautiful butterflies," Ms. Long said with a smile.

Through the whole process, she taught residents about the insects, their life cycle and the different types of butterflies native to our area. She knew residents would enjoy the butterflies, but she was surprised how they threw themselves into this project.

"To see the way this has captured them has been more than I could've ever hoped for," she said.

She took the box filled with the butterflies to some people who were bedridden so they could see the beauty of the insects.

The garden is a work in progress. It will take three to five years for the butterflies to go through enough life cycles to proliferate in the area and for the plants to mature and come back year after year.

When the day came to release the butterflies, the deck was filled with seniors.

Ms. Long started the countdown at five, opening the box as she reached zero. As she did, one butterfly took off and the group cheered.

The other four were coaxed to flight by Ms. Long, who gently lifted them out of the box, some on the tops of flowers. One climbed onto her arm and she was able to give residents a close look at the beautifully colored insect.

"The joy of seeing those butterflies actually get up on the hand, and to be able to see them so very close up, it was amazing," she said. "And the sense of freedom when they flew off ...

"We all wished them well and we're very excited about what will happen over the next couple of years."


Doug Oster can be reached at doster@post-gazette.com or 724-772-9177. First Published May 15, 2008 4:00 AM


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