Children's Museum of Walla Walla faces tough times

Board members are working to find ways to raise money and increase memberships for the museum, which opened in 2004.

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WALLA WALLA -- There's every hope of keeping the doors open, but it won't be child's play.

That was the consensus of board members of Children's Museum of Walla Walla at a Wednesday evening meeting in the facility's "Butterfly Room" -- perhaps the most cheerfully-painted space in the Walla Walla Valley.

The museum has struggled financially for several years since opening in 2004, explained board President Damien Sinnott. While the first year brought a wealth of grant money and donations, that has ebbed.

Organization of volunteers and the facility has been uneven for some time now, he added. From a one-time staff of four, the museum is down to one. Jenn Bishop now functions as the lone employee, from opening the building to scrubbing toilets and sanitizing exhibits. "We're one step behind the (Pioneer Park) aviary," Sinnott said.

Yet the mission remains true to the original vision, board members emphasized -- to inspire visitors of all ages and cultural backgrounds to learn, explore, and think creatively through interactive play.

To gauge how well the museum is succeeding at that in the community, the board put together a 30-question survey and asked entities such as the YMCA and the Walla Walla Public School District to help distribute it in early December.

Many of the survey results are gratifying, Sinnott said. For starters, 245 people responded, most of those filling out the questionnaire completely. The best news was that nearly 96 percent of the respondents agreed that Walla Walla needs a children's museum.

In addition, survey takers -- most of whom reported an annual household income of $50,000 to $74,000 and as not having a family membership to the museum -- said the facility is clean and easy to find. About 40 percent said it does exhibits "very well" and 37 percent said it does a great job of engaging older children.

However, it's clear the building's back yard needs rehabilitation and exhibits need freshening, Sinnott pointed out this morning. "On the survey people said 'You guys did this six years ago and it looks the same.'"

Most respondents had visited the museum and nearly all said they understood the concept behind a children's museum.

More than half of those answering questions said Walla Walla does not provide enough educational opportunities for kids outside of school. High percentages of respondents said they would like to develop their child's opportunities for intellectual, artistic and musical endeavors, plus more science all the way around, Sinnott noted.

Many people polled said they would be willing to donate money and time to the museum.

All pleasing, board members found, but seemingly at odds with a few other answers. A number of people believe the $75 for yearly family membership is too high and about a third reported $50 as being easier to swallow, Sinnott said the survey revealed. "People want us to do more than we're doing and they want it cheaper."

An annual membership is a far better deal than a time or two at the movie theater, believes founding member Lindell McWhorter. "When I take my grandkids, I drop $50 or $60 each time."

With a financial buffer only able to support the museum for a few months, now is the time to act, Sinnott told those seated around the giant purple butterfly. "We've reached a point of alarm about our financial condition and survival."

The museum's bank account holds about $6,000 in a fund designed to offer memberships to 74 or so families who might not otherwise be able to access the facility. "Any family that is eligible for some from of government assistance can get that, explained Joshua Allington, vice president of the board.

Families receiving unemployment benefits would qualify under that label, the board decided. And once those memberships are handed out, that money can move from the reserve fund to help with daily operating costs.

Other ideas for buffing up the museum's coffers include a wine-based fundraiser in the spring and sponsoring community "date nights" that pair up a youth group as the caregivers for parents who want a night away from the kids. That could be done at the museum or elsewhere, ventured board member Jesse Goodwater.

Clearly, the time to let the community know how to help is now, said founding director Cathy Mebes. No longer on the board, she was in attendance to offer all possible support, she explained. "People don't know we need memberships, they don't know we need money."

Giving folks definite ideas of how to volunteer is step one, she told those gathered under painted flowers and bugs. "We need to tell people how they can help -- writing grants, buying memberships, volunteering here. A direct message and directions."

Adding to the board count would also infuse energy into the organization, said board member Sonja Gooding. "We need ambitious, excited people to come. People who can get the word out and we need to get creative people back."

It can be done, Sinnott agreed. "If you know people, get 'em in here."

For more information about the Children's Museum of Walla Walla, call 526-7529 or call Sinnott at 525-0850.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom.

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