Mary Smead is enjoying life after the classroom, as she works with some metro area celebrities named Hootie, Peggy, Wilma and Zorro.

The former Independence elementary school teacher, who taught at Santa Fe Trail and Bryant elementary schools in the Independence School District for 20 years, was looking for something to replace the passion she had for the classroom – and she found it at Lakeside Nature Center.

“Honestly, it’s the best kept secret in Kansas City,” said Smead, who is now a weekly volunteer and certified Missouri Master Naturalist. “We offer everything here – a nature center, educational programs, bird viewing areas, traveling programs for scout groups and wildlife rehab. We want to educate, communicate and provide rehabilitation for injured and abandoned animals.”

Wildlife rehab area is part of Smead’s passion for the center.

Early Thursday morning, a builder brought two baby squirrels to the center that were discovered during a renovation project. They were about two inches long, pink and had not opened their eyes.

“After we make sure they’re going to get a good start in life, we will send them home with one of our amazing volunteers to look after,” said John Harmer, one of the staff naturalists from the center. “This room (housing the injured and abandoned baby animals) is pretty empty right now, which is great. But in a month or so, it will be overflowing. That is why our volunteers are such a big part of the center.”

Smead has been a volunteer since she retired in 2012 and Harmer began as a volunteer back in 2002 and now spends much of his time at the center.

The center opened in 1999 and features many animals who are native to Missouri, a bird viewing area, classrooms and nature trails.

While it appears to be up to date and modern, Harmer said it is in desperate need of a new area for the many birds who are being rehabbed and others who are part of the education program, like Hootie, an owl.

Many of the birds are housed in an outdated area where they have to be tethered so the larger birds do not attack the smaller birds.

“If we would ever have a fire, especially at night,” Harmer said, “it would have deadly circumstances. We need a mews (petitioned area so birds have freedom) desperately.”

Lakeside is hosting a Cash for Critters Event from 1-5 p.m. Sunday, March 22, at the center to raise money for that. It will feature bands, a sundae and ice cream bar, adult beverages, tattoos and crafts, an art sale and silent auction.

It will also give participants the chance to see many of the animals, including snakes, turtles and Hootie, up close and personal.

The event is free, with donations accepted. The center, which is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, is also free, with donations accepted.

If you should find an injured or abandoned animal, that is native to Missouri, call the Center (816-513-8960) and leave a message. You will be contacted shortly after and given instructions on what to do. If you don't receive a call back, or the animal truly needs help, bring it to Lakeside Nature Center by 4 p.m., (3:30 on Sunday), or after 9 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

Zorro the peregrine falcon, Wilma the 85-year-old turtle, Legacy the barn owl, Peggy the possum and Hootie are all ready to educate and entertain.

The center accepts monetary donations and dog, cat and bird food. People can “adopt” a bird through a program that allows individuals to adopt one of them for prices that range from $25 to $150 a month. The bird remains at the center, but you are given credit at the center.

Lakeside Nature Center will also be the site for the Run-4-Raptors fundraiser on Aug. 1. It will include a 5K walk and 10K and 15K run through the trails of Swope Park. It begins at 7:30 a.m. (10K and 15K) and 8 a.m. (5K) and will offer a pancake breakfast, prizes and a raffle.

The price for the 5K walk is $25 if you sign up before May 1. After May 1 it is $30. The price for the 5K run is $35 and after $40. The price for the 10K before May 1 is $35 and after $40 and the price for the 15K is $40 before May1 and $50 afterward.

Call the center at 816-513-8960 for more information.