Source: Lake Geneva Regional News

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Dirty your hands at Fellow Mortals' new center

by Steve Targo

October 04, 2012

ALEX AGAHIGIAN perusing the items on the "touch table" at the education center.
LYONS — Don't touch that, you'll break it.

That's often what kids are told, said Karen McKenzie, wildlife biologist and rehabilitator for Fellow Mortals, Geneva Township. The 35-year-old Scotland native who has worked for Fellow Mortals since 2003 said she has loved nature and wildlife as long as she can remember. She said growing up, her family would take guidebooks with them on nature walks. McKenzie and her brothers were in the Young Naturalists Club, an organization designed to promote what Fellow Mortals itself is trying to do with its new education center in Lyons.

McKenzie said the best way to connect with nature is to feel it, to "get your hands dirty." At Fellow Mortals' Meadowlark Acres Nature and Education Center in Lyons, there's a "touch table" at the far wall of the center. People can actually pick up animal skulls and bones, nests, beehives, arrowheads — things one finds when one takes a walk through a place like Meadowlark Acres.

As it turns out, McKenzie shares the same dream as the rest of the staff at Fellow Mortals, all of whom began the center project last year. McKenzie said she has a passion for nature and wildlife education, and "it all kind of came together so nicely."

Since last year, the center has hosted a few events. Its next one, the second annual education day at Meadowlark Acres, is Saturday, Oct. 13.

There's more in store for the center, but McKenzie said it is an operation Fellow Mortals staff is developing in addition to its already busy schedule. In other words, it's slow going.

"I think we're not at the point yet where people can just drop by," McKenzie said. "We're aiming to get to the point where we're open regularly, but it's going to take us a while."

She said the goal is for the center to someday become its own self-sustaining, not-for-profit entity. Perhaps it may even support the wildlife rehabilitation efforts of Fellow Mortals, McKenzie said.

"But it's more about getting people out into nature, to get them to enjoy it — kids, especially," she said.

Family connection

The 50-plus-acre site for the center, which continues to operate as a campground, would be an ideal place to foster connections to the outdoors. It's as if Meadowlark Acres is a chunk of nature shut off from the outside world, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it stop along North Road despite its sign and wide gravel entrance. There's a familial connection between Fellow Mortals and Meadowlark Acres.

According to the pamphlet for the Meadowlark center, Tom and Elizabeth Wallace moved their family to the farm in 1957. Eventually, this property would house a campground.The Wallaces' daughter, Yvonne Wallace Blane, started Fellow Mortals with her husband, Steve, in 1985. It began once Wallace Blane ran over a nest of bunnies while mowing her lawn. Years later, Fellow Mortals would rehabilitate up to 2,000 animals annually.

In 2003, Tom Wallace died. In 2011, the property was given to Fellow Mortals "to preserve and strengthen its legacy by developing a unique nature and education center," the pamphlet states. The campground still operates on part of the property, but the center feasibly could be enough of a draw on its own. McKenzie said last year's education day drew about 100 people. "That was really pretty good for our first go," she said. "From our other programs (events last spring and last Mother's Day), we had about 50 to 60 people each event. I'm hoping we can better what we did last year."

According to McKenzie, the plan is to make nature fun for children. On tap for the Oct. 13 event are several activities, including nature walks and arts and crafts projects, as well as presentations from two wildlife specialists.

But as technology progresses, it becomes a challenge for operations such as these. McKenzie said there have been numerous studies which show the number of children who are disconnected from nature, and "that's a little bit frightening."

Which perhaps makes the work of people like McKenzie so important. But she said making the outdoors fun is the key. "I think a lot of times, most kids, once they're actually outside, they like to be there," McKenzie said. Alex Agahigian, Fellow Mortals wildlife rehabilitation intern, said when children see the enthusiasm of people such as McKenzie, it's contagious. So perhaps the greater question is what generates such enthusiasm in people like McKenzie for nature and wildlife.

"I don't know," McKenzie said. "It's so innate in me, (and) as I've had the opportunity to work with animals, it just grows more and more. It's just part of who I am."