Life + Outdoors » It's Personal

Saving the Discovery Museum



Wednesday afternoon was their scheduled weekly supervised visit with their mom; every week they'd come into the same room with the same books and toys, while I sat on an office chair at the door jotting down notes. Before I became a staff writer at the Journal, I worked with Humboldt County youth at an afterschool program, a summer camp and at the foster care agency. Some of my job included monitoring supervised visits like these.

"Mom played with daughter. Mom engaged in a conversation with her son and asked him about school. Mom brought snacks. Mom read a book to them."

But today the little girl was tired of being enclosed in the same room. She let out a massive sigh and asked her mom if they could go next door to the Redwood Discovery Museum. Her mom looked at me since I was supervising and, of course, I said yes. I was just as tired of sitting in the same spot.

The girl jumped up and rushed toward the door, hopping and asking her mom if they could play in the interactive science museum's water tank. She was excited to head into the vast space filled with toys and hands-on exhibits, and I couldn't blame her. When parents and kids are stuck in a tiny room week after week, their interactions become limited and bounded by the same four walls.

The supervised visits at the Redwood Discovery Museum were so different, more engaging and playful. I'd watch families try to figure out museum exhibits together, cranking levers to see what happens, riding the stationary bike until it created enough energy to power the stoplight.

I learned about the museum when my partner Jeff was offered a job as a Pal Camp counselor in 2016. Since then he's continued to work for the Redwood Discovery Museum and it's become a part of my life. I've worked a couple shifts there when it was short-staffed and I've volunteered at fundraisers and events, as well as the occasional supervised foster agency visit.

I've always thought how lucky Humboldt County is to have it as a rare indoor space where kids can play and learn about science and boost their confidence all in one.

In a presentation about the Redwood Discovery Museum, there's a slide titled "The Power of Play" that reads, "Play provides a singular opportunity to build the executive functioning that underlies adaptive behaviors at home; improve language and math skills in school; build the safe, stable and nurturing relationships that buffer against toxic stress; and build social-emotional resilience."

When you walk into the museum's play area you see a grocery store set up with all kinds of toy fruits and vegetables, canned goods and other grocery items meticulously organized into specific categories. If you walk farther into the museum, there are interactive exhibits that teach kids about gravity, physics and energy. It's like a fun introduction to STEM activities, something I wasn't exposed to until I was probably in middle school. And every day the museum is open, especially on rainy days, kids are interacting with other kids, which helps them develop social skills.

It's a wonderful, fascinating space.

The Redwood Discovery Museum also tables at events like Family Makers Night, the Math Fair and the Fish Fair in Hoopa. That was Jeff's job when summer camp was over. As the outreach specialist, he'd have a table covered with different science-based activities for kids to try, like a kit to make fossils at home, popsicle catapults, stomp rockets.

The 25-year-old museum also hosts one of the many First Five Humboldt playgroups, where parents connect with other parents and get support and kids meet other kids. And, of course, the aforementioned Pal Camp that's been around for 70 years — there are grandparents and counselors who were once campers, directors who were once counselors.

One summer when I was working at the museum, a woman who'd brought her grandchild told me that as she was cleaning out her garage, she found a clay handprint her daughters made at the Redwood Discovery Museum when they were younger. She was delighted to see that the museum was still around to bring her grandkid.

My family moved around a lot when I was younger, so I don't have many ties or memories of a single place that I could go back to. So it's phenomenal to see that the museum has been around for so long to be an intergenerational experience for this one family.

But the museum and all its programs are in jeopardy.

Much like other small businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on the museum's budget. With the closing of interactive museums and shelter-in-place orders, people canceled their memberships and all special events and fundraisers were canceled. Eventually, with a COVID-19 protocol plan in place, the museum was able to open summer Pal Camp outdoors only but it was different and felt strange.

According to the Redwood Discovery Museum's executive director Grace Hamaker, the museum has seen revenue decline more than 37 percent in the last year.

It was Jeff's first year as camp director, which meant that he and Hamaker oversaw all the preparations for COVID-19 protocols and had to make sure that the staff were equipped with personal protective equipment and that everyone followed all the social distancing guidelines while trying to give campers a full Pal Camp summer experience.

I could see the devastation on Jeff's face when he came home, sometimes wondering if the kids were having fun. Campers had to stay 6 feet away from their friends and couldn't share anything. The year went without weekly sleepovers and potluck dinners, trips to Freshwater Park, games of capture the flag or morning flagpole, where the entire camp would come together to sing camp songs and welcome the day.

To me, Pal Camp had lost its adventurous feel and become more of a glorified outdoor daycare. The only reassurance I was able to give Jeff was that at least the kids were able to be outside and see some of their friends — I'd then think about the kids who didn't have the same opportunity or a space like that.

The museum currently provides science kits for parents to pick up and has opened a preschool for a limited number of children. Hamaker told me that the preschoolers are learning about plant root systems and using pipettes for science projects. It's bringing in revenue until it can reopen to the public but it's still struggling.

I'm asking you to help save the Redwood Discovery Museum. With its annual Perilous Plunge fundraiser — one of its biggest revenue sources — coming up, I'm asking you to sponsor the museum, support a plunger or simply donate whatever you can to help keep the museum open.

If the Redwood Discovery Museum doesn't survive this pandemic, there'll be one less safe space for Humboldt County families, for the foster kids that visit their parents in the same room week after week, for the summer and spring break camps, for the parents who bring their toddlers to playgroups, for parents who get support at the playgroups and for staff members who want to be a positive person in a child's life. And that's too important to let go.

Humboldt County kids need to learn and have fun. It's too important and it needs your help.

Iridian Casarez (she/her) is a Journal staff writer. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 317, or Follow her on Twitter @IridianCasarez.

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