By JOANNA TEBBS YOUNG
In March 2010, the Rutland Creative Economy hosted a forum at The Paramount Theatre to ask the community what new projects the group should undertake. Preliminary construction on the Creek Path was underway; Friday Night Live was a success in its fourth year; the indoor winter farmers market was booming. What should be next?
When someone suggested that a children’s museum would be a wonderful addition to the city, the audience overwhelmingly voted that, yes, indeed, such a museum should be a priority.
Follow-up surveys reinforced the belief that, quoting Wonderfeet Kids’ Museum website, a children’s museum is a “community-wide investment in children and families … reinforce(ing) skills needed for academic success … have a positive impact on the local economy … (and) strengthen entire communities.”
Chris Ettori, a father of two who lives and works in Rutland, jumped on board. Wanting to take an active role in developing Rutland as a place where his children can grow socially and intellectually, not just physically, he joined with his co-worker at Community College of Vermont, Myra Peffer, and other volunteers to help get the idea off the ground.
By the summer of 2011, a board had been formed and enough volunteers recruited and donations raised to enable the fledging organization to test their wings. At the invitation of the Downtown Rutland Partnership and in collaboration with Efficiency Vermont, the Rutland Area Farm to Food Link and a local artist, they opened the doors of a donated building, the former site of King’s Furniture on Center Street.
For six weeks during Friday Night Live and Saturday’s farmers market, three themed exhibits with multiple hands-on activities were visited by more than 1,700 people. During the summer of 2012, an additional 1,200 visitors showed up when they opened for eight weeks during Friday Night Live only.
Peffer, coordinator of academic services at CCV and president of Wonderfeet’s board, has past experience in such informal educational settings as zoos and science centers. She says that throughout her career she has made it her goal to create exhibits where children are learning but don’t know that they are.
“I love to inform,” Peffer says. “I love to create spaces that enhance science and math — to show kids that it is fun.”
Wonderfeet’s objective is always to offer “layers of learning.” According to Peffer, this means one single exhibit will teach one skill to a three-year-old, for example, and another to a six-year-old.
Ettori calls Peffer the “envisioner” in their brainstorming sessions, sharing her knowledge and experience to help determine the best theme-based exhibits and the teaching potential of each.
Peffer explains her criteria for the interactive exhibits as having two primary functions: 1) where kids role-play, “pretending to be adults,” to build their social skills; and 2) where they are problem-solving, experimenting and using a basic form of the scientific method.
Stations based on creativity — art and crafts, for example — are also part of the museum’s offerings.
Wonderfeet Kids’ Museum, which gained its nonprofit 501(c)(3) status earlier this year, has a mission to encourage “children to appreciate their role in local and global communities by creating a dynamic environment, which fosters curiosity, inspires exploration and engages the imagination through play.”
To this end, although not running a physical location during the nonsummer months, Peffer says they have been continually “working without walls.”
Peffer and fellow board member and retired educator Martha Rideout, in collaboration with the Vermont Association for the Education of Young Children, have designed a curriculum for early childcare providers. The Force and Motion “train-the-trainers” has taken place at CCV, and now they will begin to teach the workshop throughout the state. Eventually science kits will be also available on loan for teachers.
In April of this year, in anticipation of securing a permanent location and year-round hours, Donald Billings of Roots the Restaurant and Kevin Elnicki of Earth Waste & Metal, spearheaded the Kick Start for Kids Pig Roast in downtown Rutland. Thanks to donations of food, drink and time by local businesses and residents, this initiative raised more than $5,000.
And now, in a space donated by Gus Louras, 17 Center St. will be become the museum’s new home.
General Electric has donated an additional $5,000 and sent over volunteers to help with the renovation, which began last month. The planned opening date is Aug. 2, (interestingly, that’s 802) during downtown Rutland’s SummerFest.
In the meantime, the board of directors, which also includes Keri Franzoni and Candace Lewis, are researching what educational supplies to purchase, such as magnets, puppets and building materials. Volunteers are designing and producing exhibits and displays. A grant designated for such materials has been offered by Downtown Rutland Partnership for $10,000, but it cannot be secured until a matching $10,000 has been secured.
According to Ettori, who is the treasurer for Wonderfeet, as of last week, they had raised $2,180 toward this goal.
In the window of the new location, there were 87 balls, each one representing $25 in donations.
Peffer has done the math too: “If 400 people gave only $25, we’d be at our goal.”
Ettori corrects her: “313 now.”
The new site will be open year-round on Fridays and Saturdays, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. for a nominal entrance fee. The small rotating exhibits will mostly appeal to three- to six-year-olds. They plan to be open on Thursdays for pre-school visits and Sundays for birthday parties. Peffer has also secured a small grant that will provide coupons to Rutland County Headstart for three free visits.
But there are much bigger plans going forward — plans for more “quality exhibits at a quality site,” says Ettori. Green Mountain Power awarded $20,000 specifically designated for a feasibility study for a bigger site, and according to data from the Association of Children’s Museums, of which Wonderfeet is a member, a 10,000-square-foot location would be the best fit for the demographics of this area.
The board foresees this new location will also be located downtown with large historically-based exhibits distinct to this area, including a Vermont village with a general store, diner, farmers market, quarry and railroad.
In collaboration with other local organizations, exhibits would include interactive games and tasks, art projects and a local history lesson. Activities would cater to a wider age-range: toddlers and nine- to 12-year-olds.
Peffer plans to eventually obtain grants to enable the hiring of an administrative staff.
The vision, say Peffer and Ettori, is for Rutland to become a destination. As their website says, it has been shown that children’s museums bring visitors into downtowns. However, they want, above all, for this museum to be for our kids. Ettori explains that for those of lower financial ability, those who can’t travel to the Montshire Muesuem in Norwich or ECHO in Burlington, for example, this would be a place for them. He and Peffer see collaborations in projects such as a robotics club as a way to get local children, who may not otherwise see such opportunities as something for them, interested in math and science and going on to pursue jobs at somewhere like GE.
Both Peffer and Ettori spoke of the community spirit of Rutland. “I’m impressed with Rutland,” says Peffer.
“I’m impressed with Creative Economy, the Paramount, the volunteers … and I want to add to it, make downtown even better.”
“The energy is bubbling up and it’s here to stay. We just need to guide it,” says Ettori.
HOW CAN YOU HELP?
Peffer stresses that volunteer staff members are always needed — craftspeople, retired teachers, engineers, etc., or anyone who would like to staff the door. The Board of Directors, which is mostly made up of educators right now, is looking for attorneys, fundraisers, etc.
Wonderfeet needs to raise $10,000 in matching funds for exhibits and programming. You can donate at their website (wonderfeetkidsmuseum.org) via PayPal, or by sending a check to PO Box 6243 Rutland, VT 05702. You can also like them on Facebook.