MAHOPAC, N.Y. - Since she joined the Girl Scouts back in first grade, Gabrielle Lama has always had her sights set on earning the Gold Award—the highest honor a Girl Scout can obtain.

“I looked up to the other girls and wanted to be like them and have an impact on the community,” she said.

The 16-year-old Mahopac High School junior found a way to do just that. The project she envisioned to earn her Gold Award was the creation of a butterfly garden at the Catherine Violet Hubbard Animal Sanctuary in Newtown, Conn. The sanctuary was started in memory of Catherine Violet Hubbard, a 6-year-old victim of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy on Dec. 14, 2012.

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Gabrielle’s father, Julian, is friends with Matt Hubbard, Catherine’s dad.

“Matt and his wife, Jenny, wanted to commemorate [Catherine’s] legacy with an animal sanctuary,” Gabrielle said. “She was always kind to animals, and her favorite animal was the butterfly.”

The whole process actually began several years ago with Gabrielle’s Silver Award project, which began the butterfly concept at the animal sanctuary. She decided to have a butterfly-themed bench custom made and placed along a sanctuary trail.

“I thought something I could do to beautify [the sanctuary] was to make something butterfly-related; something that was purple-shaded,” she said. “I could incorporate it and make a bench where visitors could reflect or take a look around like Catherine would have.”

To raise money for the bench, Gabrielle held a bake sale at St. John the Evangelist Church. But after the bench builders heard what Gabrielle was trying to do, they were in awe of Catherine’s story and decided to donate the bench.

“So, it didn’t cost me anything,” she said. “We placed it right next to the bridal path that runs through the sanctuary.”

So, when it came time to begin work on her Gold Award project, continuing the work at the Catherine Violet Hubbard Animal Sanctuary seemed like the natural thing to do. After all, she already had money saved up from not having to pay for the butterfly bench.

“I was talking to [Catherine’s] mom and we thought it would be nice to have a garden and a way to attract butterflies,” Gabrielle said. “There was no other option—we decided I would build it and plant it, so others could learn about butterflies.”

Gabrielle said although she never had the opportunity to meet Catherine, she feels that by doing this project, she’s gotten to know her.

“She would capture butterflies and tell them she was kind and ask them to come back with more butterflies, which is what I hope happens with the garden,” Gabrielle said. “I learned a lot about her and maybe people can learn a lot about themselves [at the butterfly garden] and maybe touched by Catherine in some way, which I think would be pretty cool.”

Gabrielle raised more money for the butterfly garden by holding a second bake sale at St. John’s. She then set to work on creating the garden. She planned the design with the help of the University of Connecticut Landscape Architecture faculty and students.

“I wanted to make sure I had enough money because I wanted everything to be natural and wanted to use indigenous plants,” she said. “UConn gave me the recommendations and showed me the different steps that go into it. I didn’t realize how much went into it. I really owe a lot to UConn.”

Gabrielle also worked closely with an educator at the sanctuary named Henryk who will be the one to take visiting students through the garden and teach them about the myriad types of milkweed growing there what it does for the butteries and how it supports their migration.

The garden has since been officially designated a Monarch Butterfly Waystation, which, if everything goes as planned, visitors will be able to check out next summer as the various strains of milkweed (all different colors) begin to bloom.

The Sanctuary is located in the heart of Newtown at the end of Old Farm Road, spread over 34 acres. Visitors are welcome to explore the extensive hiking and equestrian trails or have a picnic at the pavilion. It’s open dusk to dawn.

The goal is for the sanctuary to one day accept animals to come live there but it’s not ready to do that just yet.

“They are still in the process of developing the sanctuary; they still need some permits,” Gabrielle said. “They have refurbished a barn there. The vision is to take in stray animals that are indigenous to Connecticut, so it’s a natural experience and a place where kids can go to learn about wildlife and teach people how to care for them.”

Gabrielle will receive her Gold Award at a ceremony in March. In the meantime, she encourages people to learn more about the sanctuary by visiting