“Never underestimate the power of the Notre Dame family.”
That’s how Reagan Mulqueen '20 began to describe the capstone project for her sustainability minor at Denver’s Assumption Catholic School, an elementary school located 1,076 miles from campus.
Designing and installing a butterfly garden – and the curriculum to go with it – brought together ACE, Notre Dame faculty, alumni, the Notre Dame Club of Denver, and Reagan, Mary Currie '21, and Katherine Franz '21.
Dr. Brian Collier, the director of the American Indian Catholic Schools Network and faculty with ACE, served as Reagan’s faculty advisor on the project.
“When I found out this project would benefit the school community at Assumption – a school I regularly visit to work with ACE teachers – it became all the more apparent that this collaboration exemplified the best of what the Notre Dame family is all about,” said Collier.
According to Dr. Rachel Novick, the director of the sustainability minor, the capstone experience typically includes work done during one academic year or during a summer research or study program, but Reagan began working on the butterfly garden during her junior year and spent the majority of two years making it a reality.
“Reagan’s patience and energy for this project at an early stage in her undergraduate career enabled her to accomplish so much,” Dr. Novick said. “It was unusual to have a student who was this motivated about a capstone experience.”
“The previous projects I had worked on dealt with agriculture, plant cycles, and food insecurities, but I did not have any experience with butterfly gardens or migration patterns and how they could benefit a school system,” said Reagan. “This project seemed like a great opportunity to broaden the scope of my sustainability knowledge.”
A native of Fort Worth, Texas, Reagan’s interest in this particular project was also born out of a sense of nostalgia for her own childhood.
“In the third grade, we planted a butterfly garden at our school, and that became such a wonderful part of my elementary school experience,” Reagan said. “Thinking back on those memories gave me even more motivation to pursue this project for my capstone experience.”
Through previous work with Notre Dame alumni, Dr. Novick was familiar with the amount of effort and care needed to create such a garden. In 2016, she was approached by Frank Fransioli ‘76 about engaging with Our Lady’s Butterfly Garden, a gift from the Notre Dame Class of 1976 located a short walk from the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes on the shore of St. Mary’s Lake.
Frank, a Domer who divides his time between Denver and his family’s cottage on Lake Michigan, proposed the idea of a reunion gift to his class after observing that the migration patterns of butterflies went through northern Indiana. After receiving approval from his class, Frank got to work.
“I coordinated site and plant selections and put together a volunteer effort during our 40th reunion weekend, where we celebrated Mass and our classmate Fr. Joe Corpora, CSC ('76, '83 M.Div.), dedicated the garden,” Frank said. “As part of this effort, I reached out to Professor Novick to ensure that Notre Dame faculty and students would continue to engage with the space.”
Following the success of Our Lady’s Butterfly Garden, Frank was eager to expand on the idea in other locations and imagined that Catholic elementary schools might be fertile ground—both literally and figuratively.
“I imagined the next step could be to plant a garden and then create a curriculum that blended biology—plant and insect life cycles—with sustainability, and tie it all to the goals of The Catholic Climate Covenant,” said Frank, whose nephew served as a Catholic school teacher with ACE.
Since the program’s founding in 1993, ACE has formed nearly 2,000 teachers to serve in K-12 Catholic schools while they concurrently earn a master’s degree in education from Notre Dame. This school year, ACE teachers will serve in 35 communities across the United States, including the Archdiocese of Denver.
The Mile High City is also home to the Notre Dame Club of Denver, another testament to the power of the Notre Dame family because of its long tradition of community service across the greater Denver area. Many of the club’s initiatives have included the Catholic schools where ACE teachers serve. A prime example is their Angels Among Us Christmas gift program, which started with one school but has grown to provide presents for 228 students across five different schools.
Bob Kelley ('73, '77 JD), an active member of the ND Club of Denver who was instrumental in bringing ACE teachers to the archdiocese in 2005, has worked to grow the partnership and provide so many wonderful memories for Catholic school students across the archdiocese.
“There is nothing more exciting than seeing the faces of the Angels when they tear away the wrapping and see what Santa has brought for them,” Bob said. “My favorite experience was a few years ago when a little girl opened her present and squealed, ‘THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT I WANTED!’ It just doesn't get any better than that!”
In addition to the annual Angels Among Us project, the Denver ND Club has also stepped up to provide additional funds to Catholic schools in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Through the leadership of our Club President, DawnMarie Schwappach '91, we donated $500.00 to each of the schools that we helped with Angels Among Us this past Christmas,” Bob said. “Each donation was unrestricted and meant to help those school communities cope with the COVID-19 crisis.”
With these strong partnerships already in place, Frank was confident he could get some traction on his butterfly garden idea.
“When I reached out to Bob about planting a garden at one of the schools, he mentioned the Club’s long-standing partnership with Assumption Catholic School and noted how we could start there before hopefully expanding to other schools in the future,” Frank said. “Assumption’s principal and faculty members Marie Dunn ('20 MA) and Isabel Teixeira ('19, '21 M.Ed.) are members of ACE, so it seemed like a natural fit.”
As Frank met with Dr. Novick, Reagan, Mary, and Katherine to coordinate the garden plans, Reagan took the lead, managing multiple conference calls with all parties involved and developing the curriculum that would accompany Assumption’s garden.
“Reagan dedicated a large amount of time and energy to understanding the educational and theological pieces of the curriculum,” Dr. Novick said. “There are butterfly curricula out there for elementary school settings, but this project was unique in that Reagan integrated the science standards with the Catholic theology of the school.”
“As a Catholic school principal, I was looking for the curriculum to be intentional,” said Sarah, who started serving in Denver as a member of ACE’s 12th cohort of Teaching Fellows and has since completed a number of other ACE programs, such as the ENL Hernandez Fellows and Reform Leaders’ Summit.
“Reagan’s plans fit right into the primary grades, with the life cycles of plants and butterflies,” Sarah said. “But it also has adaptive elements for PreK and kindergarten classes, as well as the older grades.”
Reagan, who majored in business analytics along with her sustainability minor, also collaborated with Amy Yarger from the Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster, Colorado, on plant recommendations and garden designs based on Amy’s extensive knowledge of butterflies and their life cycles.
“Butterfly gardens add food and shelter to environments that are rapidly losing these resources for butterflies and other pollinators,” Amy said. “We rely on these animals to pollinate the plants that feed us and keep our ecosystems healthy.
“School landscapes can be underutilized, and installing a butterfly garden is a way of making these landscapes more sustainable,” she continued. “The opportunity for students to care for a butterfly habitat is a hands-on method of teaching science, but it also provides physical exercise, a chance to build teamwork skills, and a feeling that children can make a tangible positive impact on their world.”
Things were really coming together when a potential roadblock emerged: how would Assumption afford to pay for the plants, supplies, and labor necessary to make this garden a reality?
“We were so excited to be a part of this project, but there wasn’t a ton of money in the budget to purchase the plants and equipment, or to have it installed,” said Sarah.
Just when it seemed like the project might stall, the Notre Dame family banded together once again. Bob envisioned the garden installation fitting in nicely with the Alumni Association’s Family Volunteer Camp initiative and reached out to O’Toole’s Garden Center about donating the plants and planting equipment.
“O’Toole’s has been a very generous partner to the Club with the Angels Among Us program,” Bob noted. “When I approached them about donating all of the supplies for the butterfly garden project, they said, ‘No problem!’”
With the workforce and materials secured, Shannon Shine '88, Dave Shine '86, and other members of the ND Club of Denver joined Ashley White from the Butterfly Pavilion, as well as faculty from Assumption, on a hot August day to install the garden and get it ready for the school year.
“We have a little prayer garden already set up, and we decided to place the butterfly garden next to it,” said Sarah. “The whole space really offers our students an opportunity to pray and encounter God in creation. The Assumption Class of 2019 even added a bench in the butterfly garden. This entire project has really beautified our campus in many ways.”
With so many facets of the Notre Dame family working together and the incredible amount of time and effort that was invested into this project, everyone involved hopes that this is just the beginning of many beautiful collaborations.
“Butterfly gardens are a great way for ND Clubs to support ACE schools and Catholic education in general,” Sarah said. “It’s such a tangible thing that will provide so many benefits to our student body and our environment for many years to come.”
Dr. Novick is hopeful that other students in the sustainability minor will model their capstone projects after Reagan, Mary, and Katherine’s efforts.
“This project really exemplifies what the sustainability minor is all about,” she noted. “The academic rigor and scientific context, combined with implementation that directly benefits the environment and the community. It’s just a great example of what our undergraduates can accomplish when they truly take ownership of a project.”
When asked to sum up the entire experience in a sentence or two, Reagan reflected on a similarity between butterflies and Domers, as well as the tremendous sense of support she felt throughout the project.
“Just as butterflies spread their wings and migrate around the world, so too do Notre Dame grads,” she said.
“It’s such a great feeling to know there are so many people in the Notre Dame family who want to see you do great things.”
Originally published on the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) website.