Palos Park teen’s mission is to save and educate
By Sam Malone
Regional News Correspondent
When Athena Gordan of Palos Park announced to her 5-year-old son, Peter, she would be pulling out the milkweed in her garden, she had no idea it would lead him to petition and protest the action.
She also could not have predicted that moment would define Peter for many years to come as he devoted himself to creating Homes4Monarchs, a local nonprofit aimed at saving the Monarch butterfly population.
Now 16 and a junior at Stagg High School, Peter participates in debate and cross-country, but spends much of his time expanding his organization. Built on a passion for the environment and a growing interest in the Monarch decline, Homes4Monarchs was founded in the fall of 2016.
“I’ve always had this fascination with nature,” Peter explained. “When I read about (the Monarch decline) I was really shocked. I thought, ‘as a freshman in high school what could I do in my community to make a difference?’”
Monarchs in peril
Statistics about the decline of Monarch butterflies and other pollinating insects are sobering. According to Gareth Blakesley, operations manager at Lake Katherine Nature Center and Botanic Gardens, in the past two decades the number of Monarchs has dropped from a billion to 30 million, largely because of habitat destruction.
Monarch caterpillars feed and lay their eggs exclusively on milkweed but the plant is rapidly disappearing from the countryside due to the overuse of herbicides and decline of the native prairie.
“These patterns are contributing to the shrinking and shifting native populations,” said Blakesley in a presentation to the Palos Heights City Council last year.
At that meeting, Mayor Bob Straz signed the National Wildlife Federation’s “Mayor’s Monarch Pledge” to encourage local residents to provide habitat and food for the pollinating creatures that produce as much as $40 billion of products nationwide, Blakesley said.
Since the signing of the pledge, pollinator gardens have been planted at City Hall and at the Palos Heights Library, with an uncounted number of private homeowner gardens, or sections of gardens, established for Monarchs and other pollinators.
“Seventy-five percent to 95 percent of all our flowering plants on earth require help with pollination,” Blakesley explained. ‘That’s 180,000 plant species and 1,200 crop species, very vital to our lives.”
Peter said he encountered difficulties in trying to legitimize his organization and his efforts due to his age, but expressed gratitude to his parents, Athena and Elias, for their unending support.
In addition, he said he appreciates all of his volunteers and contacts who help make his goal possible.
Focused on educating the community, Peter explained his organization promotes the growth of milkweed, a meadow plant vital to the survival of Monarch butterflies.
Homes4Monarchs operates under a two-pronged approach, the first of which relies on the packaging and distribution of milkweed seeds.
“Up until the 1990s you had milkweed growing in farms and then we had the invention of certain pesticides that protect a single monoculture such as corn, and kills all of the milkweed,” Peter said.
“Today, we don’t have any milkweed growing on the farms, which had previously been coexisting very nicely (with the main crop),” he said.
Peter said Monarch mothers will lay their eggs only on milkweed plants and, before turning into butterflies, their caterpillars rely heavily on milkweed for nutrients. Because of this dependence, the drop in milkweed has resulted in a decline in Monarch butterflies, threatening the existence of the species.
Education is key
Debunking the idea that milkweed is a weed, he said part of his educational approach to Homes4Monarchs is teaching people that the plant is actually native to Illinois. As a result, planting some of Peter’s milkweed seeds in a garden will not require much attention, but will attract beautiful Monarchs.
“Usually what happens is the milkweed pods have to be harvested around mid-October, and then I package them so that they’re ready for distribution season which is November through January,” Peter said.
Seeds of renewal
During his first year, Peter estimates that about 1,200 seed packets were distributed to the community, and the numbers are growing. With the help of the community and other local organizations such as Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, Peter has begun hosting packaging events and estimates more than 4,500 packets will be put together this year.
In addition to rising numbers, Peter’s second focus is dedicated to community outreach and educating people on what they can do to help save Monarch butterflies. This summer, Peter has put together several presentations including a big one coming up in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago.
“When people see the word milkweed, the second syllable in that is ‘weed’ so usually they think it’s something they have to pull out of their yard,” Peter explained.
“It has this negative connotation so, the biggest thing I try to do is promote that milkweed is good for the community and it’s not an invasive plant, but is a native wildflower,” he said.
With modesty, Peter credits his volunteers for much of his success. He said people often take supplies home to help package them for distribution and the enthusiasm he receives from others motivates him to continue to build his program.
Sending emails, organizing events and accepting rejection are some of the things Peter works on with Homes4Monarchs. While he said some things can get frustrating at times, Peter said the experience is rewarding for him and is a true passion.
“My organization alone is not going to save the Monarch butterfly, but it’s about trying to educate the people,” Peter said. “It’s almost like a quilt, a patchwork of all of these little organizations throughout the Midwest trying to work together to establish prairie gardens and to change public perception.”
Support for his cause
Finding most of his support in children and people in their late twenties and above, Peter often associates with people much younger or older than him. He said he finds these people to be the most receptive and believes educating parents is the best way to make a change because, by doing so, children will grow up with new values founded on the principles he is trying to address.
He joked that he could have just settled and joined a pre-existing organization, but that he isn’t fond of simply going along with things when he knows he can do more. As a result of this trait, Peter believed he could make a bigger difference through his own organization and has since achieved much success in this regard.
“I have to try to overcome the stereotype and show people that I’m trying to make a difference in my community,” Peter said. “I have to get them to look past my age and see me for me.”
Beyond the satisfaction of his success in promoting the growth of milkweed to save the Monarchs, Peter said he cherishes the relationships his organization has brought him. Citing his parents and grandmother as major supports, Peter said the people who inspire him most are the volunteers he has met.
He said while he may have founded Homes4Monarchs, it is truly a community organization that relies on, and belongs to, each person who dedicates his or her time to making a difference for the Monarch species.
“Since a lot of the area around us is residential with a lot of gardens, the people are the ones that can make the biggest difference just by determining what to plant,” Peter said.
“If you don’t have to spray your lawn with pesticides you can leave less of an environmental footprint,” he said.
The milkweed seed packets provided by Homes4Monarchs can be found between November and January in many local municipal buildings as well as libraries. For more information, email Peter at Homes4Monarchs@gmail.com.
“People can also see my latest posts and updates on my GoFundMe page, www.gofundme.com/homes4monarchs,” said Peter.
“They can also see my posts or ask for friend requests on Facebook,” he said. “Search for the name ‘Peter Gordan.'”
Readers can get an up-close look at thousands of these beautiful creatures at Lake Katherine Nature Center’s 25th annual Monarch Butterfly Festival, Sept. 16 from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., 7402 Lake Katherine Drive (74th Avenue and College Drive). A fee will be charged for adults; children will be admitted at no charge. Visit http://www.lakekatherine.org for more information.