Kaleela Thompson was only 4 years old when her mother bought her a butterfly habitat so she could watch how a caterpillar changes into a butterfly.
Personally, Kaleela was in her own state of transformation. As a toddler, she experienced developmental difficulties, and needed speech, occupational and physical therapy. Her grandparents gave her books, and she would read outside to caterpillars and butterflies in her garden.
"Kaleela knew that it did not matter to her butterflies if her speech was not perfect," says her mother, Cecilia Thompson.
"She just loved to read to them."
Today, Kaleela, 12, has overcome those developmental delays and butterflies are still an all-important part of her life.
She's written her first book about butterflies, and is working on a second nature-related book. She travels the state to do book signings at events like the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville, and frequently does educational programs to teach others about the benefits and beauty of gardening for butterflies. She's designing a website for her "My Home, My History, Our World" business, and will use it to promote her Facebook page, Kid Gardeners club and blog talk radio program. In March 2012, she is one of 12 authors of children's books invited to the state conference of the Virginia Association for Early Childhood Education.
Even though she's watched hundreds, maybe thousands, of eggs become caterpillars and then chrysalises before emerging as butterflies, Kaleela never tires of the topic.
"Look, see those eggs," she says, pointing to dozens of monarch eggs on the leaves of milkweed planted in the courtyard at her home in Hampton.
"Aren't they amazing?"
A poised young woman, Kaleela is soft spoken yet very vocal about her goals in life. A student at Hunter Andrews Middle School in Hampton, she wants to be an entomologist, and have her own butterfly observatories that will hold tropical and native species.
"That's why I'm happy that McDonald Garden Center built me a temporary butterfly house," she says.
"The butterfly house is like my butterfly lab because I can observe how they pupae, mate and lay eggs. I can find the right host plant for the caterpillars and the nectar plant for the butterflies — and observe how they pollinate.
"Because I'm breeding monarchs, I hope to track the generations of monarchs."
Kaleela's book, "Oh Where Oh Where is my Swallowtail?" is designed to be a child's first reader. Virginia Beach artist Trevor Lucas illustrated the 24-page, full-color book, which features Kaleela searching for her best backyard friend, the eastern tiger swallowtail. As she explores her garden, the reader is invited to come along, answering questions about where the butterfly may be. Along the way, the reader meets other friendly garden creatures and learns interesting facts about the tiger swallowtail, which is Virginia's state insect.
A bookmark tucked into a sleeve at the front of the book is used to find and say basic words and name primary colors. A CD tucked into another pocket is used for read-along activities. The back of the book features a glossary about animals spotlighted in the story.
The book, $10.95, is sold at Barnes and Noble in Hampton and Newport News, Hampton History Museum in Hampton, Children's Museum of Virginia in Portsmouth and Children at Play Museum in the Outer Banks. It can be purchased from the publisher Eggleston Services online at egglestonservices.org/butterfly. Based in Norfolk, Eggleston Services provides job training and employment services to people with disabilities.
At home, Kaleela maintains a butterfly garden, mostly host plants — several species of milkweed, herbs such as fennel and a planter of pipevine — where butterflies can lay eggs and caterpillars can feed.
"We had a butterfly sitter for when we went on vacation and the day before we left, five pipevine swallowtails were emerging," says her mother, laughing.
"It was quite interesting making sure they were taken care of before we left."
That's how life operates at the Thompson household — the butterflies come first.
Kaleela has no trouble convincing her mother, or father Jeffrey, to take her anywhere, anytime in the name of butterfly science. When it's time to travel, Kaleela grabs her butterfly kit, which is a foam box filled with a small net, tweezers, magnifying glass, cotton balls, sugar water mixings and safety pins. Mom is in charge of gathering the other essentials like bottled water, insect repellent, sunscreen and a protective hat because their trips often take them to hot, buggy places like theGreat Dismal Swamp.
When Kaleela has questions that relate to raising butterflies or running a small business, she reaches out to experts in the field. Many have become mentors and friends.
"She's an engaging young person," says Mark Schneider, horticulturist at the Virginia Zoo in Norfolk, who helped Kaleela with her first book.
"She volunteered for the horticulture open house at the zoo last year, and did a great job sharing information about butterflies with our visitors. She's very knowledgeable about butterflies and their life cycles."
In Charlottesville, Kaleela forged a friendship with Linda Marcham, who raises butterflies for special occasions and offers them through her website socialbtrflies.com.
"Kaleela and her mother Cecilia visited me here in Charlottesville last summer, and we spent the entire day doing 'butterfly things,'" she says.
"I also help her sometimes when she has a butterfly-related question. Kaleela seems to have an innate ability to relate to animals and insects that most people don't possess. As a former educator, I can honestly say that I haven't seen this level of interest or dedication in such a young person."
For Joan Hecht, it's been a pleasure to watch Kaleela grow and mature during the years she's known the family. She admires their enthusiasm and interest in the outdoors and how they want to share it with others.
"Kaleela and her mother spent a great deal of time camping in order to find and tape real-life sounds in the outdoors," says Hecht, who guided and helped edit Kaleela's book. She's a senior lecture and director of cooperative teacher education programs with Thomas Nelson Community College and Old Dominion Univeristy.
"As Kaleela matures, she gets more and more excited about her future possibilities. She handles book signings like a pro, yet she is still a child and is humble about her 'fame'.
"Already, she's thinking about colleges she intends to attend."
Kaleela and her mother have also visited the Entomology Department at the Smithsonian Institution where they've gotten to know entomologist Gary Hevel.
"I have advised her some on rearing butterfly larvae, but much of her knowledge is gained from her personal experiences," says Hevel.
"She seems far ahead of the learning curve for nature."
As a spirited entrepreneur, Kaleela also knows how to raise money to support her passion. She often sets up a table in the front yard where she sells plants she's raised to passers-by and neighbors. She's written and received grants to help purchase equipment she wants, and was one of 500 businesses nationally to win the Office Depot Adopt a Small Business Contest that awards office services and supplies.
Grateful for all the help she gets, Kaleela makes sure she also gives back to the community. She donates books and proceeds from book sales to PTAs and libraries. During August, she's donating to Operation Smile.
"I want people to know you can change challenges into successes," says Kaleela.
"And, I want people to love butterflies."
•See a picture gallery of Kaleela Thompson at room and yard.com
•Learn more about butterflies and butterfly gardening with the Butterfly Society of Virginia at butterflysocietyofva.org and the North American Butterfly Society at nababutterfly.com
•Kaleela will be at the butterfly house at McDonald Garden Center 9-11 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 28; Wednesday, Aug. 31; and Sept. 3, 10 and 17. The garden center built the house, and filled it with butterfly host and nectar plants; Kaleela stocks it with caterpillars and chrysalises. She will sell and sign her book.
•Kaleela's Kid Gardeners club holds its next meeting at 9 a.m. Sept. 10 at McDonald Garden Center in Hampton; contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 262-1292.
Butterflies need …
•Host plants, or caterpillar food, like fennel, dill, parsley and milkweed; trees like black cherry and sweetbay magnolia are also host plants for butterflies like the eastern tiger swallowtail.
•Nectar plants like coneflowers, petunias, Joe-pye weed, butterfly bush, violets, goldenrod, zinnias and asters.
•Puddling areas where mud and sand provide moisture and minerals for adult butterflies.
•Sun so the cold-bodied insects can warm their wings.
Celebrating monarchs. Mid-September to early October. Virginia Living Museum releases tagged monarchs late afternoons, having raised the caterpillars, chrysalides and adults on site, using a monarch butterfly rearing chamber. You can participate in those releases. Also, see the Amazing Butterflies maze exhibit and the native butterfly house through Sept. 5. Free with museum admission. 595-1900; thevlm.org.
Butterfly house. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. now-Sept. 25. Tour the large screened-in butterfly house, adjacent to the 2-acre Bristow Butterfly Garden and giant butterfly maze mowed into a half-acre meadow, at Norfolk Botanical Garden. Free with garden admission. 441-5830; norfolkbotanicalgarden.org.
12th annual Garden Festival. 10 a.m-3 p.m. Sept. 10. Butterfly Society of Virginia sells hard-to-find host and nectar plants during the Virginia Cooperative Extension-sponsored event at the Hampton Roads Agricultural and Research Center on Diamond Springs Road, Virginia Beach; free admission. From I-64, take Exit 282 to Northampton Blvd, turn left and follow the signs. 385-4769; vbmg.org.
Monarchs and more. 10 a.m-4 p.m. Sept. 24. Join Butterfly Society of Virginia members to tag and release monarchs at the Bristow Butterfly Garden, Norfolk Botanical Garden. Free with garden admission. 441-5830; norfolkbotanicalgarden.org.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun