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First Lady Leads School Metamorphasis Project

Mrs. Obama gets a little help from bipartisan friends to create two special food gardens surrounded by vibrant art
First Lady Michelle Obama has become known as the world's foremost good food advocate for children. On Thursday, during a special community service event at the Marie H. Reed Community Learning Center in northeast Washington, DC, Mrs. Obama expanded her portfolio to include being a good food advocate for butterflies.

The First Lady was joined by Congressional Club spouses as she helped students create a special garden with plants that butterflies like to eat when in the caterpillar stage. (Above: Mrs. Obama in action, planting sweet peppers with students)

Perhaps it's fitting that for a First Lady who is also known as a fashion icon, the bugs in question are the prettiest on earth. And because she's not likely to miss an opportunity to promote healthy eating, Mrs. Obama also planted some vegetables favored by people. (Above: Mrs. Obama and the Congressional Club spouses)

The Congressional cadre helped Mrs. Obama paint butterfly and flower murals across the outdoor area that hosts the bug buffet, completely transforming the space in an hour and a half of work under a blazing Spring sun. In her brief welcoming remarks, Mrs. Obama joked to school officials that they were taking a big risk entrusting the project to "a group of well-intentioned but not necessarily artistic people," which got a big laugh from the crowd.

For the butterfly art blast, Mrs. Obama was clad in black clam diggers, sneakers, and pushed-up shirtsleeves, and the fact that she had been in formal mourning attire just hours before was not mentioned. At a morning memorial service at the Washington National Cathedral, President Obama gave the eulogy for "the godmother of the civil rights movement," Dr. Dorothy I. Height. (Above: Mrs. Obama works on her own part of the mural)

Mrs. Obama noted that the Congressional Club spouses do plenty of community service at home, and thanked them for helping her in DC.

“It's so good that everybody has made a commitment to step out of our tea dresses and away from the crystal and to roll up our sleeves and be ready to paint and to get a little dirty,” Mrs. Obama said.

A special luncheon, and special assistance for the project
On Wednesday, the Congressional Club honored Mrs. Obama during its annual First Ladies' Luncheon at the Washington Hilton. The group is spouses of lawmakers, Supreme Court Justices, and Cabinet Secretaries, and the luncheon tradition dates back more than one hundred years. One attendee, Karen Shalle tt of Washington's Modern Luxury magazine, gave a detailed eye-witness account, and described the two-hour event as "lavish and stunning." Mrs. Obama called it "just a truly special afternoon." **

Despite the luncheon's formal title, male spouses were in attendance, thanks to the current gender mix on the Hill and in the agencies, and they were at Mrs. Obama's butterfly blast, too. Most notable was Paul Pelosi, husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA-8). It seems pretty certain Pelosi did not get out of a tea dress to work at the event, but he was quite handy with a paint brush.

Mrs. Obama had some high-profile artistic help for the butterfly project, too: Rocco Landesman, chair of the National Endowment for The Arts, was helping. A Broadway producer, Landesman knows a thing or two about painting scenery, and he was adept with his paintbrush, too.

Rachel Goslins, executive director of the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities (PCAH), coordinated the event, and she buzzed around, checking on everyone. Goslins is a documentary director and producer, and so she obviously has an eye for artistic projects. After the event, Goslins said she was struck by how art, education, food, and an important environmental initiative blended seamlessly together with the butterflies as the centerpiece. (Above: Landesman is on Mrs. Obama's left in photo, Goslins is on right; school principal Dayo Akinsheye is in dark green)

"Its almost hard to a rticulate and then you get here and you see the way these things connect-- being in nature, creating beauty, feeling healthy," Goslins said (l). "It's as much about gardens and healthy eating and science as it is about painting and murals and community all feels organic."

She added that she would love to see some of the high-profile dancers and dance programs she works with as Executive Director of PCHA get involved in Let's Move!, Mrs. Obama's child obesity campaign.

"They're creating a passion for movement, teaching students how to dance," Goselins said about the dancers. "In all kinds of programs for lower income kids where obesity is really a problem. So linking the Let's Move! idea not just with sport, but with dance seems really intuitive to me, now that I'm seeing this."

The lower school campus of Sidwell Friends, where Mrs. Obama's daughter Sasha attends school, will get a butterfly garden in May, courtesy of the Monarch Sister Schools Program (MSSP), a conservation organization that provided the butterfly plants and planning for the event, according to William H. Dent, Jr., who oversees the organization.  Dent said that butterflygardens help kids to not only think about conservation, but they also help kids "think outside of the box."

"I don't like the kind of science learning that goes on in many schools, where you memorize facts and figures just for a test," Dent said. "Butterfly gardens teach science in a creative way, and show children that they can really have an impact on the environment, too." 

The gang at the Reed Center included young people from two after-school programs that were recently honored at the White House, the Sitar Art Center and Higher Achievement, an academic enrichment program for middle school students. The school is seventy-five percent Hispanic, and 95 percent of students come from households that are classified as at poverty level, but the school officials noted that academic achievement continues to rise. Earlier, students had painted the outlines of the butterflies and flowers on the walls, in preparation for the event.

"These walls were blank. I saw the pictures," Mrs. Obama said. "You all have been working really hard. It looks beautiful."

Mrs. Obama set to work creating a single monarch butterfly, using orange, black and yellow paint, about a forty-minute project, as some of the Congressional Club members worked around her. More members created 3-D wall plaques, also of butterflies, with glass ceramic tiles, and painted stretched-canvas butterflies, too. When she was finished, Mrs. Obama signed her name to her butterfly, and wrote "Dream Big Dreams!" (Above)

The retaining wall behind the new garden beds was covered with a bright mural, too. The plots were designed by Dr. Christopher Puttock, a horticulturalist who works with MSSP, and of course specializes in butterfly gardens.  Butterfly gardens are critically important, Dr. Puttock said, because they encourage species that have vanished from urban environments to return. The Monarch butterfly is now on the World Wildlife Fund's endangered watch list, he noted. (Above, with the First Lady)

"All of these were once native to Maryland and DC," Puttock said, pointing to some of the 25 varieties of plants that Mrs. Obama helped put in the ground. "But you don't find them growing here anymore, unless someone has brought them in. So you don't have the butterflies, either."

He added that Monarch butterflies are currently on their way to DC from their winter grounds in Mexico.   'They're probably around Kansas by now," Puttock noted. 

Puttock also pointed out the connection between the butterfly food and the human food crops on the other end of the garden.

"Most of these are called "weeds," and they're not," he said, pointing at two different kinds of Milkweed, which Monarch butterflies love. "But these are the kinds of things farmers use pesticides to get rid of, and it destroys butterfly habitats. So it's nice to have them growing beside the vegetables." (Above: The gardens, and Club members painting the retaining wall)

Puttock helped Mrs. Obama plant butterfly-friendly plants, as well as three little sweet pepper plants in the veggie plot, which also has okra, potatoes, eggplant, and basil. They also installed two sets of switchgrass, which Puttock noted as the favorite of a particular butterfly.

A kindergartner with long, blond hair, who looked a bit like a garden fairy from a Victorian storybook, was credited with toting bags of seeds to school, and pleading with school principal Dayo Akinsheye to start a garden.

"You have your wish now," Akinsheye told the child, who was so happy with the new seedlings that when Mrs. Obama was painting the butterfly, she focused on watering the thirsty little plants. But afterwards, as Mrs. Obama was gathered with the Congressional Club members to say farewell, the little girl was guided through the crowd by a White House staffer. Clutching a piece of paper, she asked for the First Lady's autograph. She got it, and a big hug too.

Then she went and stood by the new garden, looking back and forth from Mrs. Obama's signature to the little plants popping out of the wet dirt, smiling broadly. (Above: Mrs. Obama with students, school staff, and event coordinators. Mrs. Obama made sure the press photogs got an enthusiastic wave, because there were so many people at the event that we were having trouble shooting photos)

As reporters left, school staff were hanging the Congressional Club members' butterfly plaques on the walls around the new murals. The school was transformed, and the kids, too.

Last year, Mrs. Obama's service projects coordinated around meetings of the Congressional Club spouses included a spring event at the Capitol Area Food Bank, followed by a project last summer at Fort McNair, packing backpacks for local school kids.

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