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Founders have grand plans for Peach County wildlife sanctuary

In south Peach County off the well-worn path of U.S. 341 sits a refuge where you can experience nature.

The Blue Heron Lake Nature Conservancy operates as a wildlife sanctuary, with limited public access, providing spiritual respite and environmental education.

Though it’s been open for about three years now, “it’s still very much a work in progress,” co-founder Sondra Franceil said.

The 70-acre site has a 10-acre lake, open fields, wetlands and hardwood and evergreen forests. It’s nature in the wild — and Franceil intends to keep it that way.

“The mission is to preserve wildlife and the watershed,” she said.

It’s also for renewal and discovery, for individuals, students, families and groups — but especially children.

Originally from Colorado, Franceil is a veteran kindergarten teacher of 35 years and a certified master teacher who has worked in San Diego; Beirut, Lebanon; and in Georgia. She has also been a court appointed special advocate for abused and neglected children, and that helped spark the idea for the conservancy.

“I conceived this as a healing place,” she explained.

Her experiences as an advocate, she said, impressed upon her that sometimes children are abused more in a foster home than in a birth home.

“We need to get to these families before DFACS gets there,” she said. “Intervention is needed before it gets to that point.”

Studies have shown that activities in an outdoors setting — or just an outdoor setting itself — benefit the mind, especially in young children, she said.

A May 2003 article in Psychology Today noted the work of Nancy Wells, an environmental psychologist at Cornell University. She found that children who were surrounded by nature have longer attention spans.

The added focus helps children think more clearly, so they are better equipped to cope with life’s stresses.

And using nature to cope with stress is one of the four aims of the conservancy, according to its Web site.

“We want to keep this place as natural as possible,” Franceil said. “We want to let children and families see nature and experience its healing effects.”

To that end, the conservancy is taking admittedly baby steps right now, said Rashida Stanley, co-founder and vice president of the board of directors. The future for it and central Georgia is immense, she believes.

“Currently, we can conduct small, educational field trips and offer music and animal therapy (such as horseback riding) for hurting, abused persons,” Stanley said. “Yet our goal is to do more than this.”

CAN SERVE AS ‘MODEL’

Stanley, a Macon native, is in Atlanta now, where she’s studying for a master’s degree in environmental education.

She said the conservancy can also play a key role in “sustainable development.” That’s a relatively new concept in the field of development and can comprise sustainable agriculture, green building, alternative energy, economic conservation incentives, natural goods manufacturing and environmental education.

“Environmental protection, education and economic growth can be done simultaneously,” she said. “We want the conservancy to serve as a beginning model of sustainable development in central Georgia similar to the Serenbe community in the Chattahoochee hill country a little southwest of Atlanta.”

The development, on 900 acres, could best be called a self-sustaining group of three villages with people-friendly designs that aim to foster a sense of community, encourage walking and, by keeping 70 percent of the development as green space, build a sense of appreciation for the environment.

But any development along those lines is quite a way down the road, Franceil admitted, as she seeks funding from grants to expand the size — and scope — of the conservancy.

“We are trying to purchase the property next door for that purpose, and I have put in yet another grant,” Franceil said. “We’re full of hopes, dreams, ideas — and we’re working hard to make them become a reality.”

For the moment, though, she and Stanley and the rest of the board are working to raise the conservancy’s profile in the community, build a nature center and grow its programs.

“We greatly need the financial support of the local community to seize these opportunities that will greatly benefit the community in return,” Stanley said. “Volunteers are needed to assist with on-site, hands-on projects. Donors and capital investors are needed for land acquisition, eco-friendly building materials such as lumber, solar-powered equipment as well as office supplies and equipment. ... With collective unity, we can do great and mighty things together.”

The conservancy already has been working with Frankie Towles and the Peach County Family Connection in Fort Valley, Franceil said.

“I want to work with at-risk children,” she said, adding that they can benefit most from an experience outdoors, away from an urban setting.

Franceil is also looking at working with area churches and offering the conservancy for retreats, by appointment.

“I’ve also talked with teachers and have gotten a good response,” she said. As the site develops, she wants to offer field trips for school children.

In the immediate future are plans for picnic tables, portable toilets and carport-type buildings for use as shelters.

Whenever the grant money starts coming in, it will help fund a permanent conservancy building, she said.

“Right now, we’re really grass-roots, operating on a shoestring.”

Stanley, who Franceil hopes will return after her studies to be the executive director, sees a bright future for the site.

“I see great things for the conservancy,” Stanley said. “I see the fabric of society being preserved. I see the lives of people, young and old, being changed positively for a lifetime.”

To contact writer Jake Jacobs, call 923-6199, extension 305.

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