Child's play ended by grown-up woes

In this photo form September 2007, a mother of one of the children above takes rubbings on pieces of paper at the Walla Walla Children's Museum while filming takes place in one of the many play rooms on the other side of the room.

In this photo form September 2007, a mother of one of the children above takes rubbings on pieces of paper at the Walla Walla Children's Museum while filming takes place in one of the many play rooms on the other side of the room. Photo by Matthew Zimmerman Banderas.

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— There is no doubt in his mind that a hole in the community is about to be opened up, Damien Sinnott said Friday.

Sinnott is president of the board of the Children’s Museum of Walla Walla, now in his third year of what he said was supposed to be a one-year term.

He and four other board members recently concluded that the museum — a place for children to learn and play for nearly eight years — must close its doors by the end of the month.

“I have really mixed emotions about it,” Sinnott said. “I can honestly say everyone on the board have tried the best they could to make it work. It was a very hard conclusion to come to that enough is enough. It’s not working.”

The museum opened in late 2004 after three years of labor, said Cathy Mebes, one of the museum’s founding members. Even before the organization had a physical home on the campus of the Jonathan M. Wainwright Veterans Affairs Medical Center, work parties at her own house would engage many people as excited as Mebes.

Once there was a home for the museum, more than 100 people would show up for work days, she added. “It was contagious, the enthusiasm.”

Everyone Mebes and others approached said “yes” to donating time and effort and, often, materials, even those initially skeptical of the idea, she recalled Friday.

“I would meet people everywhere and they would tell people,” she said. “Whole families got involved and they would bring more people.”

Volunteers “gave and gave and gave,” Mebes said, noting she quit her paying job and put off having her second child to get the museum launched. “I think people gave more than their fair share and not everyone is able to do that. It’s not realistic for people to stay at that level ... there’s substantial burnout.”

Walla Walla eagerly embraced the concept of a place with interactive exhibits — indoors and out — and volunteers continued to respond, Mebes said, adding she and other board members worked hard to make people feel appreciated for their efforts.

Take, for example, the builder boards for the museum’s young guests.

“Those were made by inmates at the pen, and we sent memberships to their kids so that they could know their dad did do some good things, he made that for them,” she said.

However, in every nonprofit there are cycles and eventually the directors who were hired had not been part of the initial process, which changed the nature of how volunteers were treated and how funds were spent, Mebes believes.

Add to that a quick turnover in leadership and the museum board found itself starting “over and over and over,” she explained.

At the same time, the economy “tanked” and new entities to entertain kids sprang up, Sinnott said. “Jumping places, Sweet Putt ... Competition is tougher now.”

The Children’s Museum has always struggled from income imbalance, he added. “Our operational income accounted for 40 percent of operational expenses and the other 60 percent has had to be covered through grants, donations and fundraisers. And in the last three years, those have been less successful.”

The board had hoped to retain a full-time director who could pump up the development side of things, but the museum never regained the ability to swing it financially.

For three years now, the building, exhibits and visitors have been overseen by an employee from a local temp agency, Sinnott said.

In 2010 the museum board did a survey to ask residents how the museum could best serve the community, including if its location off Poplar Street was a barrier to use, Sinnott said. “I was shocked that, overwhelmingly, it was not.”

Exhibits, however, have grown stale and in need of repair, the board president noted. “And we’ve had to push that to the back burner. We’ve been putting Band-Aids on things the best we could.”

The board is on a new learning curve to determine, “with due diligence,” how closing a nonprofit looks, Sinnott said. That includes dealing with active family passes to the museum and entertaining “all options. We’ll be talking to other entities in town to see what their interest is, in exhibits or operations. Our ears are open.”

In the meantime, he is reacting as a father of two small children. “My daughter is going to be having her fifth birthday party there tomorrow, and I’m going to have to explain at the end of that the Children’s Museum is not going to be there anymore.”

Mebes can’t help but hang onto the dream that began when she wanted a place for her then-3-year-old son to do hands-on science learning. People want to help with passionate projects, she insisted — it’s a matter of recruitment and not overwhelming any one person.

“I am hoping beyond hope that somebody else steps up with refreshed energy and says ‘Let’s revive this.’”

The Children’s Museum of Walla Walla will close at the end of business Aug. 31. For more information call 526-7529.

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