SYCAMORE, Ill. (AP) — Thirty-five years ago, a message Kathy Stelford sent herself from the past made her realize that she wanted to make a change.
"When I was in my mid-30s, I read a letter I wrote to myself in my early 20s," Stelford said. "I realized that I wasn't doing any of the things I wanted to. I wasn't living the life I wanted. I just knew that I had to do something. That's when I found a farm flipping through a real estate book."
After finding a farm in rural Sycamore, Stelford and her mother both sold their homes in the suburbs to purchase the property. Wanting to help wildlife, Stelford founded Oaken Acres Wildlife Center 35 years ago on April 1, 1984.
Oaken Acres Wildlife Center in Sycamore is a 33-acre wildlife habitat set aside as a refuge for wildlife rehabilitation, education and conservation.
After it was established, Oaken Acres, a nonprofit 501(c)(3), has cared for about 20,000 wild patients, going from 80 patients in 1984 to 903 patients in 2018.
To celebrate Oaken Acres' 35th anniversary, a new, two-story, about 3,000-square-foot rehabilitation center will be finished by June. A grand opening celebration event is planned for September. The new center was funded in part by a board member's bequest, community fundraising and a grant for equipment from the DeKalb County Community Foundation.
Stelford said the new rehabilitation center is almost five times as large as the current space and is much-needed, especially during the busy months of May through August.
The second floor of the planned center will be for birds permanently in residence at Oaken Acres and for critical patients that need a quiet environment.
"We are now a northern Illinois rehabilitation and resource center, not just for DeKalb County," Stelford said. "Even with the current rehabilitation center, which was built about seven years ago, we have outgrown our quarters."
Animals cared for at Oaken Acres range from small geckos to larger animals such as deer, foxes and coyotes. Other animals include mice, songbirds such as sparrows, snakes, turtles, raccoons, opossums and birds of prey, such as eagles and turkey vultures. Oaken Acres is licensed to take in any species native to Illinois.
"It doesn't matter how big or small, how pretty or ugly, we take in all animals," Stelford said. "Our motto is 'Every life matters.' When someone gives you an animal, there is an implicit agreement that you're going to do your best to help that animal. ... Animals suffer, and they shouldn't have to; 90 percent of the patients we take care of are victims of human interface. We caused their problems; we should be their solution."
To care for animals brought in, Oaken Acres works closely with veterinarians at Prairie View Animal Hospital in DeKalb, Bethany Animal Hospital in Sycamore and Wildlife Repair Shop in Naperville, which donate their services.
"They help clean wounds, do stitches and set bones," Stelford said. "What happens most often is that the vets place a stainless steel pin in either a wing or leg to heal a fracture."
Stelford said other future plans include creating a coyote complex to care for orphaned coyote pups.
"If I see an animal suffering, I want to help it," Stelford said. "A three-second release, holding up a bird and letting it fly off, is pretty gosh darn rewarding. Those three seconds make our long hours, trips to the vet and overnight caretaking all worth it."
Stelford's mother, Virginia Gordon, who helped found Oaken Acres, died in 2016 at age 99.
"When I'm 99, I want to still be here at Oaken Acres, taking care of animals," Stelford said. "All I've ever wanted to do is help animals, because every life matters."
Source: The (DeKalb) Daily Chronicle, https://bit.ly/2UjrRzB
Information from: The Daily Chronicle, http://www.daily-chronicle.com