Better World

‘The Butterfly Effect’: Kids Are Supporting Children In Detention Centers With Beautiful Art

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To date, thousands of migrant children are still in U.S. detention centers. Two students in the San Francisco Bay area saw the need for more awareness of the issue, and created a youth-led project called The Butterfly Effect: Migration is Beautiful to show support for the children still being detained.

Despite President Trump signing an executive order in 2018 to end his zero-tolerance policy on family separations, children continue to be detained and many families are still not reunited. Some blame a disorganized system, and some feel identifiable relatives are unable to come forward out of fear for their own immigration status. Experts have warned that detention creates toxic stress for these children, which disrupts brain development and leads to multiple long-term negative outcomes, including diminished physical health, learning difficulties, and behavior issues.

Kaia Marbin and Lily Ellis, ages 11 and 10 years old, began The Butterfly Effect as a way to show children in detention centers that they are still on our minds and they are loved. When they heard about the large number of children being detained, they knew they needed to find a way to represent this number visually so other children could understand the magnitude of the problem. They decided to create and display paper butterflies — 15,000 of them, one to represent each child in a detention center as of the time of their project launch in July 2019.

Lily Ellis of El Cerrito, California and co-creator of the project explained why they chose butterflies. “They fly free and they’re allowed to be themselves, however they want to be,” she said. “Monarchs migrate between Mexico and California, which is where a lot of migrants are coming from and each butterfly is different and beautiful in their own way, just like the kids and the families in the detention centers. They’re still all beautiful, and they’re still all human.”

The movement is getting national attention

Co-founders of The Butterfly Effect encourage people to display butterflies in their communities to spread awareness, and even to deliver butterflies to local elected officials to demonstrate that their constituents care about detained children and encourage the politicians to act. Last week, a group of almost 40 people, including 15 youth activists, traveled to Washington, D.C. to do exactly that. 

They delivered butterflies to House and Senate offices, met with Senators and Representatives, and also participated in a press conference led by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Alongside displays of thousands of butterflies, Kaia and Lily spoke beside Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Barbara Lee, and others to raise awareness of migrant children in detention. The activists also held a rally in Oakland, CA earlier this month.

photo credit: Shira Belazel, used with permission
photo credit: Shira Belazel, used with permission

Needless to say, the events are incredibly meaningful for all those involved. “The trip to DC was impactful and I learned a lot about our lawmakers,” said Jahan, age 9, one of the youth activists who flew to D.C. for the event. “I feel like we changed some hearts and minds.”

Equally understandable is the pride felt by the families of the young co-founders. Jyothi Marbin, Kaia’s mother, told ParentsTogether, “As a parent, I’m so impressed and inspired by the leadership and vision of the children. …It’s a profound reminder to me as a parent that children are visionary, that they can process and understand events in the world around them, and through the purity of imagination and creativity, can make a real impact in the world.”

The Butterfly Effect surpassed its goals, and shows no signs of stopping

The girls originally asked their community to help them make 15,000 butterflies out of recycled and upcycled materials, but have now surpassed their goal. It’s a huge testament to the enormous impact that can come from a simple idea. “Kaia had the idea originally to represent the number of children in detention visually to help people understand the impact of detention on children. She reached out to Lily and they recruited friends and community members to work on the project and it has exceeded her (and our!) wildest expectations,” Marbin shared.

Over 40,000 butterflies have been made so far as The Butterfly Effect makes its way around the globe, with butterflies being created as far away as Zimbabwe and Brazil. 

The Butterfly Effect website encourages kids all over the country to become leaders in their area by creating butterflies to continue to spread awareness. Youth can register through the site to become team captains and either mail in the butterflies they’ve made or create displays in their own area.

Teaching children compassion and helping them see themselves as citizens of the world are important parts of parenting. Making some beautiful butterflies with your own children can be a great way to impart that lesson in a meaningful and concrete way.

Jessica Watson is a freelance writer, author and the blogger behind Four Plus an Angel. Mom to five kids, four in her arms and one in her heart, she tries hard to enjoy them every moment but sometimes dreams of a week alone with a pile of her favorite books. "Four Plus an Angel" -