On June 30, 2023

Wonderfeet Kids Museum: A family haven, built by generous Vermonters, for visitors and residents alike

 

As most adults know, even a small contingent of cantankerous kiddoes stuck at home can wreak havoc: turning lamps into projectiles, beds into trampolines, and all species of house pets into scaredy-cats.

For that kind of mayhem, grownups need to muster up some major magic. They need a solid action plan, one that keeps even the most boisterous bambinos safe and sound, as well as entertained. If that plan can also engross them in art, science, and other educational activities, all the better.

About a decade ago, a group of gifted grownups — led by Rutland businessman Paul Gallo and educator Myra Peffer — devised just such a plan. From several discussions of ingenious ideas for boosting the region’s economy, emerged initial concepts for what would become Vermont’s first museum for kiddie clients — the Wonderfeet Kids Museum.

An indefatigable community advocate, Gallo is the quiet embodiment of what leadership scholars call a “servant leader.” He routinely contacts donors and other supporters at all hours.  Peffer, Wonderfeet’s official founder, is a soft-spoken dynamo whose 25 years as an educator includes guiding a zoo, a science center, and an avian education center. Together, they convinced hundreds of other educators, as well as artisans, marketers and generous donors, to join their crusade.

In its new location in the former Green Mountain Power Energy Innovation Center on Rutland’s Merchants’ Row, Wonderfeet Kids Museum, which became an official 501c3 nonprofit in 2013, now encompasses 8,000 square feet of interactive exhibits. All were conceived by lead designer Yoshi Akiyami to engage, enchant and educate children ranging in age from infants to tweens.   A retired Disney Imagineer, Akiyama relocated to Vermont in 1996, after a career that included designing for Walt Disney World Florida, EPCOT, and Tokyo Disneyland.

During my recent visit to the museum, filled on that sunny day with parents and children, both Akiyama and Gallo greeted me, along with executive director Danielle Monroe. It was Monroe who toured me through the space to demonstrate first-hand the alchemy that occurs there.

“Wonderfeet has a significant focus on fostering a unique learning and growth opportunity for both adults and children,” said Monroe. “Rather than relying on passive activity, Wonderfeet engages them in collaborative experiences to play and learn.”

Monroe’s connection with Wonderfeet began 10 years ago when her children were very young.  With her background in sales, plus an effervescent personality that could cheer even the crankiest curmudgeon, Monroe was a natural to lead Wonderfeet. She joined its board of directors in 2018 and became executive director in 2019.

There is so much to see, touch, hear, make, and play with at Wonderfeet, but the following are just a few highlights.

Throughout the museum there are exhibits that kids can “drive,” ride, or climb.  Among them, a cheerily painted Casella trash truck (including movable steering wheel, loud horn, and a GPS screen), plus a John Deere tractor, and a train.  A giant cow sculpture holds court in front of a mural depicting the Vermont State Fairgrounds (but no boarding the bovine!). 

There’s also a replica of the Rutland Farmers’ Market; a kid-sized diner with food facsimiles reflecting the region’s diverse population; and a campsite with equipment that looks rugged but is cuddly and comfy.

Wonderfeet’s largest crafts room is equipped with plenty of paint, paper, clay, glitter and other materials for boosting creativity. Dubbed “The Junior Mint,” its lacquered wood tables — splinter-resistant as well as beautiful — were crafted by adult artisans at The Mint, Rutland’s Makerspace.

According to Monroe and Paul Gallo, most of the exhibits at Wonderfeet have been designed and/or constructed by Vermonters, including one craftsman who worked the entire night to complete an exhibit in time for Wonderfeet’s May re-opening in the new location.

Upstairs, there are rooms (for rent) to celebrate birthdays and other milestones. Its primary colors and cozy seating arrangements could encourage even the most intrepid introverts to socialize.

Wonderfeet’s paid staff includes about a dozen professionals; all are first aid-trained, including CPR. Over the past decade, Wonderfeet has built partnerships with other nonprofits as well, including most of the area’s schools, daycares, and camps.

To be sure, as enthralling as Wonderfeet’s many attractions are for families, it is an outstanding nonprofit enterprise and a significant economic asset by anyone’s definition. Its growth reflects the power inherent in constructive community engagement and authentic social capital, values that esteemed political scientist Robert Putnam, author of the landmark book, Bowling Alone, has been proselytizing for more than two decades.

Wonderfeet’s leaders, especially Paul Gallo, who remains the organization’s most persistent pied piper, possess the kind of intellectual firepower and influence that generates consistent capacity-building support, especially from donors. Some newer nonprofits may claim they foster connection in difficult times but Wonderfeet has been nurturing engagement and delivering quantifiable benefits across all socio-economic groups since its inception. And, with an estimated 20,000 visits a year, it is forging those connections well beyond the Killington-Rutland region.

As Monroe and I were ending our meeting, I asked her to summarize what she, as a mom, feels is the magic that parents and other caregivers cherish about Wonderfeet.

Without hesitating, she replied, “When parents or other caregivers come to Wonderfeet, even if it’s just for an hour, they don’t have chores or a to-do list, they aren’t replying to emails. They get to focus entirely on playing with and connecting with their child,” Monroe emphasized.

“That’s why kids want to keep coming back,” she added. “Not because of the amazing exhibits we’ve built, but because we’ve built an environment where they are the boss. They are the center of the experience and they have their parents’ love and attention. That’s the magic, that’s always been the magic.”

For more information, visit: WonderfeetKidsMuseum.org or call 802-282-2678.   

Liz DiMarco Weinmann, MBA, is principal and owner of Liz DiMarco Weinmann Consulting, L3C, based in Rutland, serving charitable and educational institutions: lizdimarcoweinmann.com.

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