By Jodi La Marco
Inside the Mid-Hudson Children’s Museum (MHCM), visitors can lose themselves in a variety of screen-free, interactive exhibits. “Tell Me a Story,” for instance, allows children to act out their own stories with the assistance of props, costumes, and sets. Big blue blocks inhabit another space known as the “Imagination Playground,” where kids can create structures, creatures, or whatever else the muses of playtime inspire. The museum’s list of crowd-pleasing installations can be found on its website, mhcm.org. What can’t be found online, however, is the story of the MHCM’s rebirth not just as a leader among children’s museums, but as a champion of social justice.
This year marks the museum’s 30th anniversary. From finding a permanent home to staying afloat in the wake of the great recession, the organization has seen its share of challenges. By 2010, the museum could barely pay its mortgage. “It wasn’t able to pay bills. It maxed out lines of credit,” says Executive Director, Lara Litchfield-Kimber. “We’re a nonprofit, so we can have grants and fundraising, but we don’t get government support for operations. It was really with the visionary support of the Dyson foundation that the children’s museum came back from the brink of closing.”
Litchfield-Kimber joined the museum’s team as part of a stabilizing effort in 2012. With a background in the museum field, the Executive Director used her experience to assist in completely revamping the MHCM. “I’m one of those weird people who likes to fix things,” she jokes. The job of rebooting the center was not an easy one. “Every aspect of running the museum was facing a challenge. We didn’t have funding. The facility was tired and worn. Our board was exhausted from the whole process of almost closing. We did a rebuild on every single front, literally starting with ripping out the carpets and painting the walls and putting in new exhibits.”
Part of the museum’s transformation also hinged on addressing the needs of the surrounding community. The Executive Director met with parents, CEOs, college presidents, and nonprofit leaders. Through these talks, Litchfield-Kimber defined the museum’s demographic as children ages zero to six, and determined what kids needed most. As a result, the MHCM now focuses on three areas. “The first is school readiness and skill development. Regardless of whether you’re coming from a wealthy family or if you’re challenged by poverty, you can come in here and we kind of level the playing field. We help children become more prepared when they transition into school. The other two areas we focus on are health and wellness, and on community building,” Litchfield-Kimber says.
Litchfield-Kimber also learned about the lives of area families. Some Poughkeepsie residents regularly contend with poverty, crime, and food insecurity. Access to quality produce is so limited, in fact, that parts of Poughkeepsie are considered to be “food deserts,” areas where fresh fruits and vegetables are scarce. “And here we were telling people they should be eating these things,” she says. “We started our children’s garden realizing that it would build skills, but it wouldn’t be transformative. So, we stepped in and did something that we were the first in the whole children’s museum field across the country to do: We opened a public farmer’s market.” The market opened in 2017 and operates from June through Labor Day on Monday afternoons at the Poughkeepsie waterfront. The museum offers free programs which teach families how to shop the market and create meals item. The market also now accepts food stamps and WIC. “To fight food insecurity, you have to make food accessible,” Litchfield-Kimber says.
The museum also recently hosted two free dinners for families affected by the partial government shutdown. “As part of the museum field, some of our closest colleagues are federal institutions. We feel what’s happening to them. We have over 1300 federal employees in Dutchess County, and over 400 in Ulster County. The dinner started as just a way to let people know they have support. We wanted to use it as another listening session to find out what we could potentially facilitate. I didn’t expect that The Chronicle of Philanthropy was going to pick up on it, run the story, and that we would become the leader in the field yet again,” says Litchfield-Kimber. “We made sure that everybody left with grocery bags full of food and extra pizza. I never would’ve expected it to be so meaningful, both to the people who came and to myself and to our staff. As we were leaving, I heard a staff members say, ‘This is what makes working at this museum more than just a job.’ As a director, there’s really nothing else you ever need to hear again.”
Once the organization began responding to the needs of families, attendance at the MHCM skyrocketed. “We went from 18,000 visitors a year, to this year, we had 80,000 visitors,” says the Executive Director. “I think that because we’re addressing the most urgent needs the community, we had an immediate response. We’re using the children’s museum to advance some very serious issues of social justice. It’s so far beyond providing a fun place to play and learn. Our mission is simple: We empower young children and their families.” And they do. One big blue block at a time.