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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Healing Garden & Nature Trails Come To Life In Franklin

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Franklin High School teacher Patrick Gain introduces his students to a large snapping turtle that makes the conservancy its home.

Walking into the 36-acre Conservancy for Healing and Heritage feels like entering a period centuries before Milwaukee was “metro-ized.” This is despite the fact that the parcel is sandwiched between busy Loomis Road and Rawson Avenue in Franklin.

"Over ten acres in size, Kopmeier Lake is the only glacier lake in Milwaukee County."

Tucked behind the Reiman Cancer Center's parking lot off Rawson Avenue, lies a hidden jewel. The ice age carved a deep lake, wetlands and a ravine rich with old oaks and lush vegetation. And although the world around was developed and paved over, this parcel has remained largely untouched. That's because in the late 1800s, a family, who made their fortune in ice and coal, purchased the land and spent quiet summers and hosted company picnics there.

In 2003, a non-profit that formed around the healing conservancy mission bought the property.

And when the necessary funds are raised and the work is complete, organizers say it will be a place for both cancer patients and the public to explore nature and find peace.

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Credit Conservancy for Healing and Heritage
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A healing garden designed to be accessible to all will take shape around the perimeter of the conservancy's chapel.
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Credit Susan Bence
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Executive officer Susan Rabe welcomed Franklin High School students into the conservancy's chapel.

Susan Rabe, the conservancy's executive officer, recently greeted a Franklin High School’s AP environmental science class inside the conservancy’s soaring chapel. Its floor-to-rafters windows seem to welcome the forest inside and beckon the visitor out.

"We want to make sure the original vibe of this land remains and so that it’s a place for you and students following you to come here regularly and learn from the land,” Rabe says.

Her passion is met with no perceivable reaction, that is until their teacher Patrick Gain speaks up: “You guys are all interested in checking the turtle traps, right?"

He knows before he can inspire students to care about this place, he needs to show them something cool.

So they head down a steep ridge through dense trees to the glacial lake where a large netted trap awaits. It’s been baited with a can of sardines – the smell of which turtles apparently gravitate to.

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Credit Susan Bence
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Student Ben Rasey holds a smaller turtle found in the conservancy.

Junior Ben Rasey says he can’t get over this place, just short bus ride from his school. “It’s very peaceful, very peaceful. When you think there’s a bowling alley and then all of a sudden there’s something back here."

Suddenly teacher Patrick Gain bursts out of the brush with a 50-pound snapping turtle in hand.

He knows how to handle a snapper, but students spontaneously shriek. Still their faces also reveal fascination.

Gain says the conservancy offers a priceless experience for his students and is something they can help steward.

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Credit Susan Bence
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It's hard to tell who enjoyed the wildlife more - teacher Patrick Gain or his students.

“We’re fixing up an area so that cancer patients can use it as a means to kind of decompress and get back to nature and have a spiritual experience.” Gain adds, “They buy into that and it’s important to them.”

You can almost hear his experiential learning wheels turning. “There’s a lot of things we can do here," he says. "We can remove invasive species that are terrestrial, like buckthorn, and honeysuckle and garlic mustard and all the normal problem ones... I haven’t been in the lake to figure out what they have out there, but we could remove those kind of invasive species as well."

The next day, Gain mobilizes 30 teens to haul out unwanted plant life. And when the next school year rolls around, he'll return with another batch of environmental science students.

The conservancy's chairman Michael Murry tags along on today's trip. He’s not only been helping raise $5 million to bring this oasis for education and healing to life, Murry also coordinated funding of the cancer treatment center - a parking lot away from the preserve.

At the time, Murry didn't realize he'd benefit from the projects. “I’m a cancer survivor. I didn’t know when I helped raise money that I would be the first patient for the radiation, I was at the (cancer treatment center’s) ribbon cutting and then I was there every day for 7 weeks."

Murry has become one of the most engaged volunteers and advocates for the Conservancy for Healing and Heritage. He has experienced the value of nature in the healing process firsthand.

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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.
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