Happy Birthday Children’s Museum

What parent or grandparent of little ones in southeastern Connecticut hasn't been served their share of plastic tacos in the Mexican restaurant at the Children's Museum of Southeastern Connecticut?

This Friday evening, the venerable little institution in Niantic invites an adults-only crowd to come and celebrate its 20th birthday.

There will be catered hors d'oeuvres and cocktails courtesy of local caterers, games, a raffle and musical entertainment by Cantico, a Chester-based trio of Spanish-style guitars and light percussion, performing arrangements of Latin, jazz and popular tunes.

The board of the nonprofit, known for its past fairy tale ball extravaganzas on the fundraising circuit, took on the home playground to celebrate this milestone. But it is still very much a fundraiser for the museum, which caters to kids from infants to tweeners and their families.

"After 10 years of galas, we wanted to do something that was fun and a little different," says Victoria Mueller, a new board member who is in charge of the party. "We're also rewarding the staff, who have worked there so long and hard."

More than 800,000 visitors from around the world have visited the museum since its start-up by volunteers in a donated storefont in Niantic in May 1992. Museum records show that about half are from New London County, and most of the rest are from Connecticut. The rustic little place is a handy stopover for traveling families and visiting relatives and offers a variety of educational classes each week for children ages 12 months to 8 years, monthly programs for tweeners ages 10 to 12, and birthday parties.

The museum has been at its current location, 409 Main St., East Lyme's old library, since late 1992. Its first executive director, Tony Mollica, proposed moving into larger accommodations in New London's train station early last decade, but lacked funds and support. Its second executive director, Christy Hammond, oversaw the total renovation in 2006 that brought in new exhibits, including Kelsey's Vision, a multi-sensory experience for children, and proper front entrance ramps to accommodate wheelchairs.

"The museum remains in Niantic, we're committed to staying in Niantic, we have no plans to leave," says Holly Cheeseman, board vice president. "The merchants see us as a real anchor to the downtown, it's a nice synergy."

The facility has evolved with the times and its means. Volunteers, local contractors and businesses help out with the annual September spruce-up and switch-out of exhibits. While old timers lament the retirement of the indoor treehouse, the Seaside Village boat and clam digging beach that took its place are just as popular with the kids. The expanded seasonal outdoor play area includes a kid-sized zipline and digging pit.

The museum has paid upwards of $3.5 million in employee wages in the past 20 years. Green energy rebates and donations made a $50,000 geothermal heating system installation possible last winter, providing another learning display for the kids and affordable, comfortable heating for visitors and staff.

The economic downturn has been tough on the non-profit, which depends on corporate sponsors, local grants and donations. It has an annual operating budget of $325,000.

"Like all families in the region, we're counting our pennies," says Cheeseman, who notes that while the museum is seeing an increase in attendance, it's often families who are already members (and get free admission) and reduced fees for school groups and families supported by social service programs.

Staff and supporters will mark this 20-year milestone without an executive director at the helm. Hammond, who served in that role for eight years, resigned at the end of July. The board is in the process of interviewing candidates.

"We're looking forward to another 20 years of successfully working with, entertaining and watching the children and families of southeastern Connecticut enjoy what we have to offer," says Cheeseman.

Take your pick of birthday bashes for the museum. There's Friday night's adults-only party from 7 to 10 p.m. at the museum; wear summer cocktail party attire. Tickets are $75 per person; call (860) 691-1111 for reservations.

Families are welcome to the free outdoor concert on Saturday, Aug. 11, from 6 to 8 p.m., at East Lyme Town Hall, 108 Pennsylvania Ave. Entertainment by local artists and music by Steve Elci and Friends. See www.childrensmuseumsect.org.

Suzanne Thompson lives in Old Lyme. Catch her weekly radio show, "CT Outdoors," on WLIS 1420/Old Saybrook and WMRD 1150/Middletown or online at www.wliswmrd.net, Tuesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. She can be reached at suzanne.s.thompson@sbcglobal.net.

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