With its native wildflowers, paved bicycle trail, and two small lakes, Ohio’s Sylvan Prairie Park may not look like much to outsiders. But for seventh-grade teacher Stacey Leffler, this small, school-side nature preserve has been life-changing. Leffler teaches science at Timberstone Junior High School in Sylvania, Ohio, and as part of an annual endangered species project, encourages her students to choose an endangered species they’d like to study.

When a few of them showed interest in monarch butterflies—a winged insect then listed as “endangered” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species due to habitat destruction and climate change—Leffler realized that she had the perfect learning grounds at her disposal. That’s because common milkweed, the host plant for monarch caterpillars, is a Sylvan Prairie Park staple. The park and its milkweed soon became an essential part of the teacher’s own life sciences curriculum. In turn, it also opened up Leffler to a whole new world of possibility. 

Midwest prairie filled with milkweed plants

Midwest prairie filled with milkweed plants

Based on her work involving monarch butterflies, Leffler was one of two environmental educators selected as recipients of Natural Habitat Adventures 2023 Monarch Butterfly Scholarship Grant. The award included a space on one of Nat Hab’s 2024 Kingdom of the Monarchs adventures (a $4795 value), as well as free round-trip airfare and the chance to witness millions of monarch butterflies roosting within Central Mexico’s forested highlands. 

According to Nat Hab, “It was a wildly competitive year, but Stacey truly stood out as one of the best candidates we’ve had in our monarch scholarship program to date. She represents an extraordinary combination of past work and outstanding future potential to aid in monarch education and conservation.”

Leffler’s passion for endangered species—and monarch butterflies in particular—as well as her engagement in active conservation made the seventh-grade teacher an easy frontrunner. Over the last few years, Leffler’s been integrating monarch biology into her extended classroom by teaching students about the significance of milkweed in the monarch butterfly’s life cycle, along with the importance of pollinators. Together, their activities include collecting milkweed seeds from Sylvan Prairie Park, establishing a nursery to actively learn about seed germination and growth conditions., and even incorporating milkweed into their home landscapes, promoting environmental stewardship. Through it all, the students are gaining a greater appreciation for nature and the importance of environmental responsibility, especially when it comes to the conservation of monarchs.     

Monarch butterfly chrysalis hanging from a milkweed plant

Monarch butterfly chrysalis hanging from a milkweed plant

The Road to Mexico 

When Leffler found out about the scholarship through an email, her first thought was, “This sounds amazing! I could see that it was a good fit for me and would be a really great experience,” she says, “and one that I’d been able to share with others.” Leffler sent out her application and then moved on. It wasn’t until Nat Hab reached out and asked her to follow up the application with a video that Leffler realized, “I actually have a shot at this.”

So when a call came in that she would have one last online interview, Leffler got to work learning everything more she could about Nat Hab, World Wildlife Fund, and the monarch butterfly migration. “Except the only question that the Nat Hab team asked me,” she says, “was ‘will you be available to travel on these particular dates?’ I told them that I have my passport ready and can be packed in a second!”

female woman traveler monarch butterfly migration conservation education Mexico

Mexico’s Monarch Butterfly Experience 

In mid-January, Leffler joined 12 other travelers (“They were some of the most inspirational, awesome people I have ever met,” she says) on a six-day expedition to experience Mexico’s monarch kingdom. Led by two of Nat Hab’s expert natural guides, the small group journeyed via horseback into the country’s central mountains, visiting both the El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary and the slightly smaller Sierra Chincua Sanctuary.

Here in the highlands, millions of monarchs cluster tightly together along the branches of Oyamel fir trees, creating a stunning display of orange and black that—when still—resembles brilliant autumn foliage. “But as soon as the sun comes out and the monarchs warm, they’ll start flying,” says Leffler. “It’s surreal,” Leffler says. Butterflies were landing in her hair and along her arms and fluttering all around the group, their wings flapping together so loudly it was like listening to a waterfall.

“In Ohio, we might see 20 to 30 monarchs flying around the wildflowers,” she says. “But at each sanctuary we visited, we probably saw four million. The whole experience was just amazing.” North America’s eastern population of monarch butterflies (including those Leffler sees in Ohio) overwinter on the same 11 to 12 isolated mountaintops in central Mexico annually. 

However, only two-percent of the country’s original oyamel forest—a native forest ecosystem that only grows in altitudes between 7,874 and 11,811 feet—remains. Throughout their visit, Leffler and her group learned first-hand about what WWF–Mexico is doing alongside local communities to protect this fragile and endangered habitat, where forest degradation can have serious consequences.

“It’s just so flabbergasting to think that this little insect can make it all this way from Ohio all the way down to Mexico having never been there before,” says Leffler, “and then once they arrive, they find the exact place and trees alongside all the other monarchs. It absolutely blows my mind.”

female woman traveler monarch butterfly migration conservation education Mexico

The Takeaway 

Leffler kept her students updated throughout the trip with videos and posts so that they could follow along, but says it was actually adults who had the most questions. In fact, her experience in Mexico has led to a speaking engagement at a local park, as well as an invitation to be on the Sylvania Tree Commission. 

“Winning the scholarship has been a great catalyst for me to make a difference in my community,” says Leffler. 

This spring, in partnership with the Toledo Zoo, Timberstone Junior High School is even adding a prairie plot to its property. Leffler will be planting it with milkweed and other native species to provide a natural habitat for the migrating monarchs and an additional learning space for her students. 

“The butterflies were absolutely breathtaking,” says Leffler, “but my biggest takeaway from the trip is the absolute awe of nature, how amazing it is, and how much there is to learn from it. Then there’s everything that’s transpired because of this experience. Honestly, I’m just so grateful.”

You can follow Leffler on her YouTube channel, “Science With Stacey” (@Sciencewithstacey). 

> Meet our other 2023 Monarch Butterfly Scholarship Grant winner, Princess Harris, Sustainable Food & Land Use Senior Coordinator at interfaith environmental nonprofit Faith in Place.

Want to see monarch butterflies in the wild? Learn more about our Kingdom of the Monarchs trip and witness this magnificent migration for yourself!

monarch butterflies in water mexico

© Stephen Hollenberg