Cover Story: Kelli Toohil helps create a place to explore & more
A Look Inside Billings' Wise Wonders Children's Museum
All it took was a snip of the ribbon with a giant pair of purple handled scissors and it was official. Wise Wonders Children’s Museum, with its lime green, sky blue and fiery orange walls became Billings’ first of its kind place for kids to learn, experiment and, most importantly, have fun. After six challenging years, the dream of one Billings mom was finally beginning to come into full color.
“We are getting there,” Kelli Toohill says as she looks around this emerging children’s museum wearing a big smile with a sparkle in her eye.
Seeing what she calls “really great children’s museums” over the course of her life helped spark this dream. With each visit, this wife and mother of three would hear the words play in the back of her mind, “Really? Why don’t we have a children’s museum?” She knew what it was like to watch her children’s faces light up after they discovered something “cool” on one of their excursions. She knew without a doubt that a city the size of Billings could support one.
“Whenever I would take my children to a children’s museum – all those things like, ‘Are they getting enough sleep? Are we reading enough in the day?’ All those worries I would put out the window and it was the one little piece of that day that I felt like a rock star, where I was doing everything I could for my kids at that moment. I just wanted that here in Billings for other parents and grandparents,” Kelli says.
April 26th of this year, after years of hard work, countless volunteer hours and a lot of sweat equity at the hands of many, Wise Wonders hosted an official ribbon cutting ceremony. It was another day that Kelli Toohill, one-time Wise Wonders volunteer turned executive director, could be labeled a rock star. In front of the mayor and a crowd of a couple dozen supporters, Kelli opened the doors on what some once thought was an impossible endeavor.
“On behalf of the City of Billings, all of our citizens, our businesses, and the children, congratulations! We are so proud of everything you’ve done,” proclaimed Mayor Tom Hanel on that ceremonial day. He not only credited Kelli, but the team of ladies with the Junior League who jumpstarted the project. “They did not give up. They persevered. They worked. They drew all of you in to help out,” Mayor Hanel said to rousing applause. Wise Wonders was officially on its way.
On a recent rainy Thursday, a curly haired boy is spotted swinging his legs under the lit table where he and his mom are putting together a colorful castle with Magna-Tiles, an imaginative building system where kids can make almost anything. Nearby, a mom and her pre-school daughter are looking at a display, moving magnets to try and uncover the beauty of all things Nano, or the science of small. There’s a soft play place for wee ones, a handheld microscope to peer into hair follicles or the wings of a butterfly among other things, a wind tunnel to launch paper parachutes, panels that take on a giant Lincoln Log feel when put together, and a pint-sized market where kids can learn all kinds of lessons —math skills, nutrition, and working together. It’s only a small sampling of what’s under this roof. Here at Wise Wonders, kids up to the age of nine can easily spend a few hours boredom free.
As Kelli gives a tour of the museum’s 3,200 square feet, she says she takes time each day to look kids in the eye and ask them what they think. Other times, she’ll pretend to be a fly on the wall, just soaking in the reactions. She smiles as she says, “I love hearing, ‘Let’s look at this! Let’s learn about this!’”
Before Wise Wonders was even a whisper of an idea, there were those that came before her who tried and didn’t succeed at getting a children’s museum on the Billings map. One parked a play area at Rimrock Mall with the hope that one day this space would translate into community support for a museum. Haley Vannatta, Yellowstone Valley Woman’s Publisher remembers when that idea was beginning to fizzle. As a member of the Junior League with Kelli, she and two other Junior League Members — Aimee Brown and Tonya Bingley — joined forces to lobby the Junior League to pick up this idea as one of its service projects.
“From the beginning, Kelli has been a pioneer in wanting a Children’s Museum in Billings,” Haley says. The four women met at least once a month, if not more, for a couple of years, pouring their time and energy into the dream. They traveled to Bozeman to see that city’s children’s museum and to pick the brain of its executive director. How would it be staffed? How could it be self-sustaining? Kelli says, “I remember when we visited with the director in Bozeman and she said to us, ‘Maybe you will have one in time for your grandkids.’” Haley adds, “There were a lot of hurdles to jump through and Kelli just kept going.” While Haley and the others dropped off over time, Kelli was the constant, always trying to move the idea forward. Haley adds, “Once she is committed to something and wants to see it succeed, you can’t stop her! She has such deep reservoirs of energy and a will to keep going. That is the only reason why it came to fruition – because of her.”
Mara Haynes was the Junior League President in 2011 when the project was officially adopted by the Junior League. If you ask Kelli, “It took a lot to convince the League to take it on as a project.” They had to prove they’d done their research and that this colorful place of learning could be viable. While Mara doesn’t remember a hard sell, she remembers the passion behind the idea. “It was hard to imagine that it would get to this point. Kelli did everything. She was even the grant writer. I can’t imagine the hours she’s put in to bring this to life.” Now, after watching this project take flight, Mara calls it a huge gift, one that was led throughout the years by one woman who refused to take no for an answer. She says, “It is just such a wonderful passion for her. We all know that at the end of the day if you love what you are doing, you do it well.”
The museum began rather humbly with its Museum without Walls events. Members of the Junior League would move into roughly 4,000 square feet on the MetraPark’s grounds sharing the vision with portable exhibits. At first, Kelli says, it wasn’t easy to describe the concept to some who had never experienced a children’s museum in its full glory. “People would ask about taxidermy or think it was a wax museum or an art museum with pictures of kids on the wall,” Kelli says with a laugh. “It was fascinating and frustrating.”
Junior League member and Petroleum Engineer Shawna Bonini will never forget trying to cart those exhibits back and forth and then, storing them in her garage when they weren’t in use. Shawna can chuckle about it today, but back in the day, she remembers vividly just how exhausting those temporary museums became. She says, “I said, ‘Why are we doing this? We could be spending our energy at a location, getting people in the door, showing people who don’t understand the concept.’” She kept her ear to the ground and stayed in touch with commercial real estate brokers looking for the perfect place to house an emerging museum.
“We had a feasibility study,” Shawna explains. “We had all of this research telling us that this was going to work out. We just needed to have somebody believe in us.” After trying to get space donated to kick start a permanent place for Wise Wonders, she realized, “I believed in us.” In January of 2015, after selling a property she owned in Texas, she ponied up her family’s own money to buy Wise Wonders a home at 110 N. 29th near the heart of downtown.
“It was kind of a leap of faith,” Shawna admits. “It was a good enough price that we would be able to donate the space for a while so that the museum could get going. I knew that this was the way to get our foot in the door and get started.” And, when Shawna helped in the fundraising effort to raise needed funds for Wise Wonders, “I would tell people, I am not asking you to give any more than I have already given myself. That is how much I believe in this!”
All you need to do is look at the Wise Wonders wall to see that others believe as well. Kelli points as she shares, “This is our first 50 recognition wall.” Each donor’s name is engraved on a gear. Even this display teaches in the process. Kelli smiles and says, “They are magnetic and we can move them all around and kids can learn about working gears.”
In February of last year, a few fresh and vibrant coats of paint were added to the walls. The exhibits began, piece by piece, to be moved in. When Wise Wonders opened last year on June 16, only half of the current space was in use. “It was cramped,” Kelli admits. “Our maximum capacity was 68 at that point in time.” Fundraising continued so that they could open up the entire first floor to better host birthday parties and field trips. Thanks to major donors like Phillips 66, the museum was able to build on what Shawna donated, “That was amazing,” Kelli says. “Now, we have this overflow space to be able to do educational programming.” While five kids came in on the museum’s first day, now on average, 60 kids and their parents, grandparents or nannies will walk through the doors on any given day.
“It is completely a grass roots effort to see where we started and where we hope to be,” Kelli says. “We started a year and a half ago with our new non-profit and had $3,000 to our name. That’s pretty amazing. We grew from $3,000 to having a space. Now we have 350 member families.” Member families spend $60 for an annual membership to be able to bring their kids whenever they like. It all goes to help the museum’s $160,000 annual operating budget.
Since those early days, Wise Wonders has officially become a 501(c)3. It has an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer (Volunteers In Service To America), three part time guest service assistants, and a part time museum manager helping Kelli to organize the museum’s volunteer crew, greet guests and help with the ever-changing programming. “We try to do something different each day,” Kelli says. She’s even working with the Easter Seals Goodwill Peer Connection program to help those with special needs get much needed job training. “We have a few volunteers; so far they have all been young men with autism. They will come in and help lead science experiments or other activities. It gives them opportunities for job training in a fun way.” Kelli gets a bit emotional as she thinks of how the museum is now touching lives in a very direct way. “That, to me, is huge because I started out my career with rehabilitation counseling where I worked with a lot of people with disabilities. This is something that I am really excited about.”
When asked what’s next, Kelli shares, “We are all still dreaming.” In the short term, the museum is hoping to add a water exhibit designed to mirror the Yellowstone River to show kids a bird’s eye view of the nation’s longest undammed river. In the long term, “The sky is the limit!” Kelly exclaims. “I want exhibits. I want to pay staff. I want to see kids learning. I want a place where parents and grandparents can come and have fun.” And in the really big picture, she adds, “To have at least a 15,000- to 20,000- square-foot museum with an outdoor space, field trips and buses and a parking lot, to be self-sustaining, with state of the art technology – that would be awesome.” She’d also love to collaborate even more with those in the fields of science, technology, engineering and in math (STEM) to bring real life lessons to Wise Wonders. “I don’t think we’ve been stretched enough yet,” Kelli admits. “I think we have a long way to go. We need to be stretched a whole lot more!”
For now, Kelli will settle for the pint-sized joys that walk through the door each and every day.
“There was a story that one of our regular visitors shared. Her son woke up at 4 in the morning, got dressed and went into his mom’s room and asked, ‘Is it time to go to the museum yet? Is it time to go to the museum yet?’ She told him, ‘It is not open yet. They don’t open until 10. Go back to bed.’” As Kelli smiles and reflects on just how far this colorful place of learning has come, she adds, “Those are the stories that make you say, ‘Yes! That is what it is all about!’”
DID YOU KNOW?
Bozeman, Missoula, Glasgow, Great Falls & Helena all have Children’s Museums.
There are 240 children’s museums open across the United States with another 100 or so in the works.
A place for curiosity, creativity, education & fun
The museum is open Tuesday through Thursday from 10 AM to 5 PM and Fridays and Saturdays from 10 AM to 3 PM. It costs $5 to get in, or if you want to spring for a $60 family membership, you can come to play and learn any time you wish. Want a unique birthday party? Wise Wonders can host it. For more, visit wisewonders.org.
A BIG THANKS
Many hands helped Wise Wonders to get its start
If you ask Executive Director Kelli Toohill, “A project such as this cannot come together in a silo.” Wise Wonders would like to acknowledge the Junior League of Billings for its countless hours of voluntarism and counsel. The original Steering Committee evolved into the Founding Board. Thank you to Lisa Almanza, Shawna Bonini, Michelle Breum, Anya Fiechtl, Julie Gibbs, Michelle Harkins, Jennifer Welzenbach, Kelli Toohill and Lauren Wright. Thank you also to other friends and families who supported Wise Wonders through pop-up museum events to the eventual space but were not mentioned.