Kinnelon 8th Graders Embrace Nature and the Monarch Butterfly During Pandemic

By Steve Sears

Eighth grade students at Pearl R. Miller Middle School in Kinnelon are battling stress during COVID-19 in a special way and have encouraged others to do the same.

John Cornwell, Sadie Smith, Elizabeth Gillen, Sophia Gillen, Manu Soriano Credit: John Cornwell

“They have chosen to focus on helping people see the value of getting into nature during times of stress and uncertainty and educating about the importance of Monarch butterfly survival in northern New Jersey during annual migration,” says Jemi Gillen-Ruth, Team Advisor for the extracurricular activity project. “Planting native milkweed (really a wildflower and not a weed) in the fall is as simple as scattering seeds in a sunny spot before the ground freezes”

The team has been promoting their project on social media and has gone door to door, handing out milkweed seeds and tracking where residents plant the seeds to see if Monarchs arrive in the spring of 2021.

“We spent the first couple months of our project just team building and getting to know everyone in terms of what they like to do,” says Gillen-Ruth. “We just talked a lot about what do people like to do, and they all like to be outside, and they all like nature. And this has been a year where they’ve had to adapt to radically different circumstances.”  And, just like Monarch habitats are disrupted, so have the community and the 8th grade students and their classroom as well been disrupted. “How do we connect people to nature?” was the key questions Gillen-Ruth says.

The team has partnered with the National Wildlife Federation and New Jersey Audubon Society, and is hoping to certify Morris County as a NWF wildlife-friendly county. 

The project had a few parts. Individuals who took part filled out a form and were sent seeds, which they scattered on the ground. As of early December, 630 people had responded, which was well above the expectation line, but it has meant a wealth of data to the team. The kids converted the Excel file from a survey taken to a map, so they can see where in New Jersey people have committed to planting the seeds, and then in the spring there will be a check via follow up contact information to see if the milkweed has grown and butterflies are fluttering nearby. 

The team has collaborated with the Community Church of Smoke Rise. Over 100 seeds were planted in a large, sunny spot near the church, so folks next spring and summer will hope to see butterflies and their caterpillars. “In collaboration with the students, the church’s land recently became  certified as a National Wildlife Federation Wildlife Habitat! This means the church’s grounds contain woods, rocks, water, and other natural elements where wildlife can make nests and be safe,” says Gillen-Ruth.

For Gillen-Ruth, the fact that the kids get to think about something they might not normally think about makes it worth it. “Sometime the simplest ideas become the most interesting ones. The whole competition is about helping your community, and the community can be your neighborhood, it can be your town, your city – it can be the world.”

Some websites of note are: Free seeds,; National Wildlife Federation Wildlife Habitat Certification,; and New Jersey Audubon Society, Also, readers can follow the team’s project and learn about the Monarch butterfly on Facebook at NJ Monarchs.




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