Rutland's Wonderfeet Kids' Museum was launched by volunteers in an empty downtown storefront in 2011. As its role in the community has grown, officials hope an ambitious fundraiser scheduled for this weekend will help the museum further expand its services.
The museum started almost as a pipe dream. Rutland residents who took part in Creative Economy forums nearly a decade ago talked about wanting a children’s museum in town.
After launching in 2011, the museum moved to larger, more permanent space in 2015, and expanded its hours and broadened its outreach.
On a recent Wednesday morning, about a dozen preschoolers had the run of the museum, laughing and playing with the various exhibits.
Inside the cab of a bright blue locomotive, a 5-year-old engineer was busy working the controls, her ponytail flying as she repeatedly blew the whistle.
Five-year-old Maisie Notte enjoyed an impromptu puppet show while four other preschoolers grabbed child-sized white jackets and got busy serving up pizza, fruit and cupcakes behind the counter of the futuristic pink diner, which looks like it was taken straight out of an episode of the Jetson’s.
Jackie Walker stood nearby, smiling. The children are part of a local preschool class she teaches.
“This is my first time here as a parent, and as a teacher,” she admitted. “I think this place is amazing! I would even bring my 10- and 12-year-old here to play. I had no idea there was so much here.”
There’s an enclosed play area for very young children, Legos and robotic equipment for older kids, a darkened cave where kids can play with light and shadows, a wall with magnetic ramps and balls and a brand new mini credit union with a child-size ATM machine that just opened.
Five-year-old Katherine Sadowski was busy sorting money inside the brightly colored exhibit, designed with a Dr. Seuss-like flair. She was at the museum with her grandmother, Mary Ann Merkle, of Rutland Town.
"I think this museum is wonderful," says Merkle. "There's just so many creative activities for the kids and they just love it. My granddaughter had her last birthday party here."
“The kids are so engaged,” says Jackie Walker. “I was a little worried about the amount of time we were scheduled to be here, but I don’t think it’ll actually be enough time."
"I don’t think they’re going to want to go," she says, laughing. “They’re loving it.”
Myra Peffer, the museum’s executive director, says more than 300 families have purchased annual memberships, and the museum offers free memberships to the local Boys and Girls Club and Headstart program. They also offer free and reduced price memberships for low-income families.
"Someone purchased memberships for the two new Syrian refugee families," says Peffer, "and both have brought in their kids to to use the space."
Peffer points to the diner, where the menu now offers Syrian specialties such as shawarma, thinly sliced meat that's been specially prepared and roasted vertically on a spit; falafal, deep-fried balls made from ground chickpeas, fava beans or both; and yaprak, grape leaves stuffed with ground beef and rice.
A local mom provided Arabic translations for the menu, she says. "Isn't that great?"
Last year, Peffer says, they had 17,000 visitors, which was up from the year before. While visits are down slightly for the first three months of 2017, she hopes that will turn around.
Peffer says the museum is funded by gate admissions, memberships, grants, donations, sponsorships and birthday parties.
"So many people have helped create this place," she says, "and the talent in this community is unbelievable."
She cites Yoshi Akiyama, who's helped design their exhibits, as a perfect example. Yoshi worked as a vice president for Disney's Imagineering Division and helped create Tokyo Disney and Disneyland Paris. After moving to Vermont, he helped create exhibits for the American Museum of Fly Fishing in Manchester, where he serves as deputy director.
Peffer says many others have helped with construction, painting, sound and light design for the museum. It's thrilling what we've accomplished in just a few years, she says, and their role keeps expanding:
“We have organizational memberships with Easter Seals, for example, for supervised visits with kids in foster care. Rutland Mental Health brings their kids who have behavioral and social problems — on a weekly basis they come in and bring kids and work with them with physical therapists and O.T.s [occupational therapists].
“So, for me, that’s the heart and soul of who we are. Yes, we’re a fun place where families and kids can learn and play together, but we’re also helping build healthy families in this community.”
Peffer says they hope to do even more, and will host one of their largest fundraisers yet this weekend: a lip-syncing competition at the Paramount Theatre on Saturday night.