The Southwestern Raptor Rehabilitation Center began more than 20 years ago with the goal of saving and rehabilitating one bird.
Now the center is set to take flight to a different location and under a different name.
Francis Carter, teacher at Southwestern High School and the head of the school’s raptor rehabilitation program, announced in September — during the club’s always-popular open house event — that she would be retiring from teaching this upcoming May.
But those worried about the future of an award-winning educational program needn’t fear.
“We’re still going to be here,” said Carter. “We’re still working with kids.”
The program, which has been located on a small parcel of land at Southwestern High School since its inception, is moving off-campus to a 27.5 acre farm off Slate Branch Road, which will pave the way for more educational options for all students in the county.
Although the club had been open to all students during its tenure at SWHS, Carter said students from other schools were reluctant to participate. Now, with the newly-named Liberty Nature Center’s off-campus location, there is a new push to include students from all schools in grades 7 through 12.
“Everyone seems really excited about the fact that this will be a community thing, not just a Southwestern thing,” said Hunter Kinney, the assistant director for the Liberty Nature Center.
The Liberty Nature Center is named after one of the program’s raptors, a bald eagle named Liberty who passed away a couple years ago. Liberty is only one in many raptors the program has worked with, including golden eagles, vultures, owls, falcons, and even a raven at one point.
“We’re still going to work with the kids at Southwestern, but we’re also going to work with Somerset and Pulaski kids, all who want to participate,” said Carter.
Carter said students from Science Hill Independent School and a student from Northern Middle School have already pitched in and volunteered at the center as it prepares for the move between locations.
Kinney said although the Liberty Nature Center will be open to volunteers in seventh grade and above, one-on-one interaction with the raptors will be designated to the older students.
Kinney said the excitement is tangible, but he said some details, such as transportation, are still being worked out for those students located in other parts of the county.
“We’re trying to work all the kinks out with that,” said Kinney.
But there is still some time to work out the details — although Kinney and Carter both have their hands full with the transition.
Carter is still working full-time as a SWHS teacher, and Kinney, who worked in the club as a Southwestern student, is a full-time biology student at the University of Kentucky.
“I try to come home about three or four times a week and work on this,” said Kinney, who laughed and said it can be “tough” to balance both.
Kinney is just one in hundreds of students who were affected by their time with the raptor rehabilitation program.
“What I did in high school was exactly what I want to do with the rest of my life,” said Kinney, a 2012 SWHS graduate.
Carter is often visited by former students, and the club’s yearly open house is often a homecoming of sorts for many of her former pupils.
“We have so many who have gone into veterinary school, business — the club is a business, in a way — environmental law, biology ... I want to give (students) that opportunity,” said Carter.
The club is a non-profit organization, but it’s nonetheless a complex one that requires full commitment from students in both caring for the birds and dealing with the public side of things.
And Carter is ready to offer those challenges to any student who is willing to come and volunteer with the Liberty Nature Center, which is expected to provide a number of educational opportunities.
The new facilities will be state-of-the-art and will include a lab area. The new program will also offer students experience and training in business, advertising, journalism, photography, technology, management, and scientific research.
“This is really going to make a difference for the students,” said Kinney, who will return and work full-time with the Liberty Nature Center after he graduates from UK in 2015.
Kinney and Carter have plans to include other creatures in the center, including reptiles.
But first priority in the coming months will be the construction of aviaries and housing for the program’s current animals — around 25 raptors — along with office space and restrooms.
After those are built, a picnic shelter, an outdoor amphitheater and nature trails will be added.
The Liberty Nature Center will offer seasonal hours for public visits, educational and hands-on programs, places for family and group outings, and “ ... most importantly a safe and fun place to connect with nature for citizens of our region,” said Kinney.
Kinney and Carter are looking forward to building a center that could be a significant draw for those in Pulaski County and surrounding areas.
“It’s going to take us a few years to get there,” Carter cautioned.
But those who benefit from the program will be, first and foremost, the students of Pulaski County.
“It’s not a Southwestern kid thing, it’s a raptor kid thing,” said Carter.
A support rally and bonfire, hosted by the Liberty Nature & Raptor Center Boosters, Inc., is slated for this Friday at 5 p.m. on the new Liberty Nature Center location. The event, dubbed “Ignite the Flight,” will give people the opportunity to take in the new property and hear details on construction and business plans from those involved before the center is completed and opened to the public.
To get to the new location, drive on Slate Branch road until you come to the four-way stop. Turn left onto Bridge Hollow Road. The property is about a mile down that road.
Signs will also direct motorists to the new nature center.
For more information on the Liberty Nature Center, go to www.libertynaturecenter.org or to the center’s Facebook page at :