Come Out and Play, Everyone! Children’s Museum initiative opens doors to all kids

Haley Wright, photos by Andrea Paulseth

The Children’s Museum of Eau Claire is a unique destination for the children of the Chippewa Valley to learn and be inspired by engaging all of their senses in hands-on exhibits and interactive programming. The museum’s recently launched Play for All Initiative is intended to open up the museum’s doors (and unlock its wonders) to all children in the community who would benefit from the museum and its offerings, regardless of circumstances, socio-economic status, or financial hardship. The initiative is composed of several elements – Family Free Play Nights, Passport to Play, Special Days for Special Kids, and All Play Family Memberships – but the principle underlying each offering is to eliminate barriers to accessing the museum.

Jacqueline Van Hemert, the museum’s director of programs and events, explained the initiative. “Family Free Play Nights will debut in partnership with local school districts to provide free museum admission for children in free and reduced lunch programs on designated nights once a quarter in 2016,” she said. “Passport to Play provides mini-grants to schools and community organizations who need funding for field trips. Special Days for Special Kids open up the magic of the museum to children with special needs through free, quarterly play days featuring modified sounds, light and sensory activities facilitated by volunteers and therapists. Finally, All Play Family Memberships continue to provide reduced-price memberships for low-income families in addition to children with special needs and military and foster care families. This membership provides unlimited access to the Children’s Museum for just $10 annually.”

The Initiative came about as a result of some strategic planning that took place at the museum in 2014, the knowledge of how many families in our community are in need, and a genuine desire to provide access to the museum despite barriers. “One of the results of our planning revolved around wanting to serve more children who need us the most,” said Michael McHorney, the museum’s executive director. “About the same time and during an application process for partnership with another local nonprofit, it was brought to our attention that more than 5,000 children ages birth to 5 in the Chippewa Valley live at or below 200 percent of the poverty line! We learned more about the kinds of needs these families have and began to research the best ways to meet them. Although we were already offering discounted museum memberships to families in financial need, we quickly realized that we could do more to reach the children who need us most. Born was the Play for All program and our annual fundraising campaign is now dedicated to this effort. Our goal is to double the number of families served by 2018.” McHorney says membership has already grown 15 percent since the launch of the program, and he notes that in addition to the museum’s annual fundraising campaign, which is now called Play for All, local corporate sponsors and grants are helping to make the initiative possible.

To gain access to the Children’s Museum through the Play for All Initiative, an agency referral can be made or “[f]amilies can simply bring in verification of their eligibility either for EBT benefits program, WIC program, active military ID, or a school free and reduced lunch program letter. We also attempt to place information at the many agencies and schools serving families in our community to build awareness,” McHorney said. “To improve awareness, we are beginning to meet with staff at different youth and family serving organizations. Our hope is that together they and our staff can serve as a bridge for families to feel comfortable and connected to the museum in a special way.”

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