Karen Prante lost her “butterfly,” so she decided to do her part to save other butterflies.
Prante’s son Nathan Prante-Price had Cockayne syndrome, a rare genetic disorder characterized by developmental delays, premature aging and a shortened lifespan. Butterflies have been taken up as the symbol of the children who have the disease.
“Because they all die prematurely, we say they grow their wings and become butterflies,” Prante said.
Nathan died in August 2012 at just 7 years old as a result of Cockayne syndrome. But now Nathan’s name graces a butterfly habitat at his former school, Eagle View Elementary, in an effort to protect actual butterflies.
When Prante attended a gardening symposium in March and found out about the plight of the monarch butterfly, it struck a chord.
Migrating butterflies are in “grave danger,” according to a report released in January by the World Wildlife Fund-Telcel Alliance and Mexico’s National Commission for Protected Area.
Many monarchs migrate south from the United States and southern Canada each year to spend the winter in Mexico. Some butterflies make their way through Fairfax County, stopping along their route in the spring and fall.
A survey conducted in December 2013 showed the number of monarchs making the 2,500-mile trip to Mexico and back has plummeted, largely due to a loss of their habitat along the migration path.
Leaving the talk at the Loudoun County Master Gardeners’ Gardening Symposium in Leesburg, Prante found herself filled with a need to make a difference.
“You have the iconic butterfly, the monarch, and it’s dying off,” Prante said. “With the connection to Cockayne syndrome, that is why I was so inspired.”
Prante leads a garden club at her daughter Addie’s school, Willow Springs Elementary, with her friend Jann Canestra. Canestra also runs an eco club at Eagle View Elementary, where Nathan attended preschool for two years.
When Prante approached Canestra with the idea of establishing monarch butterfly habitats at both schools to support the insects during their migration, Canestra immediately jumped on board. It was Canestra who proposed naming the Eagle View habitat Nathan’s Garden, in honor of Prante’s son.
“We had talked about the gardens, and that day in the library at the school, I picked up a book and there was a picture of Nathan,” Canestra said. “I knew then, here’s our sign.”
Nathan attended Eagle View Elementary’s preschool program for two years, and although he went on to attend both Colin Powell and Poplar Tree Elementary, he still holds a special place in the heart of the school community.
“Nathan couldn’t walk, he couldn’t talk,” Prante said. “But he was happy, and he had a real personality. People fell in love with him.”
Prante and Canestra spent the months of April and May toiling on the grounds of Eagle View and Willow Springs with the help of the students in their outdoor learning clubs, digging, mulching and planting the flowers and plants that monarchs need to thrive. These include milkweed, where monarchs lay their eggs and where their caterpillars grow, as well as native flowers that provide food for the adult butterflies.
The gardens were finished in late May, too late this spring to attract the butterflies on their way north. So now Prante and Canestra are playing the waiting game.
“We’re crossing our fingers that we’ll see them in the fall,” Prante said. “I can’t wait until the fall, and I really can’t wait until next spring.”
Prante hopes that as students at Eagle View use the garden for outdoor learning, Nathan’s legacy, like the monarch butterflies, will live on.