RI man dedicated to saving monarch butterflies in memory of late daughter

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JAMESTOWN, R.I. (WPRI) ─ In July 2010, Frank O’Donnell’s life changed forever.

His youngest daughter, 15-year-old Keri O’Donnell, was in a minivan with four other people when it blew a tire, causing the driver to lose control. Keri died after the car crashed off the highway.

One week after Keri’s funeral, Frank said he noticed a monarch butterfly fluttering around their North Providence backyard.

“It stuck around for awhile,” Frank recalled, adding that he felt it was a sign Keri was still with him.

Amazed by the experience, Frank posted about it on Facebook. That’s when a couple of his friends suggested he plant a butterfly bush in Keri’s memory.

A few days later, the family was gifted an angel statue, and Frank said that’s when he knew he needed to build a memorial garden for his daughter.

He not only planted a butterfly bush, but he also planted some milkweed, which plays a critical role in the monarch butterfly’s life cycle.

While building the garden, Frank said he and his family had a chance encounter with a blue jay.

“We had this little blue jay that bugged us, and to me that’s Keri,” he said. “It’s loud and colorful and squawky and it’s just like, ‘hey I’m here!'”

Frank decided he wanted to attract more blue jays to the garden, so he set up a bird feeder full of peanuts.

“Now we have just all sorts of birds that show up too, which is cool,” he said.

Frank continued his efforts and rebuilt the garden after his family moved to Jamestown. As time went on, he found himself with pods upon pods of milkweed from Keri’s garden.

Unsure of what to do with all of them, he began opening them and placing the seeds inside into little packets.

“I just told people I had them if they wanted it,” he said, adding that at first, he was only giving the seeds to people that he knew.

In January, Frank decided to begin offering the seeds to anyone who wanted them. His mission to save monarch butterflies caught the eye of The Boston Globe, which shared his story earlier this month.

Frank said after the story ran, “it just blew up.”

“I was getting emails from around the country,” he said.

Between the Globe’s story and his own social media posts, Frank said he ended up receiving requests for seeds from all 50 states within a matter of days.

Along with the requests, Frank said strangers have shared their own personal stories of loss and how one butterfly brought them comfort in a time of grief.

“A lot of them talk about their loss of a loved one and what butterflies mean to them,” Frank said. “It’s really interesting to hear from people like that … when you hear someone say, ‘a monarch is my brother’ or ‘a monarch is my son,’ it’s touching.”

Frank believes Keri is looking down at him and smiling.

“I don’t want to speak for someone who is not here, but I think she would be happy,” Frank said. “I would be happier if we weren’t doing this, but we are kind of keeping her alive.”

Right now, Frank said he’s overwhelmed with the number of requests he’s receiving for seeds, and he fully expects to run out sometime soon.

But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t plan to continue his mission. He said this is only the beginning.

“I want to get to the people who have that bond with monarchs,” Frank said, adding that he plans to “triage” his efforts to send seeds based on availability. “Others I’ll just let them know I ran out, but I’ll put them on the list for next year.”

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