United Way boosts Sawmill Museum's programming

When you think of a museum, I doubt a couch comes to mind. Now, there was a Museum of Laziness, but hopefully to no surprise of its workers, it closed within a week.

While the Sawmill Museum has its mission of preserving Clinton’s lumber history, for decades museums have adopted a mission of being a social space for their community. Ultimately, the goal is to be the community’s “couch,” or the community’s “living room” or their “attic.” Whatever your preferred section of the house is, the goal is to show that museums are here for everyone in the community.

This means that programming doesn’t always have to be lumber related if there is an identifiable need brought forth by community partners. A great and recent example of this has been the Chinese cultural classes at the Felix Adler Children’s Discovery Center. In addition, for many of the Sawmill Museum’s members and regular guests, this has been true for a long while. There have been families who have had birthday parties here since we opened. Local businesses have found ways to partner with the museum, with one of the more interesting ones being when the museum hosted “Shorty the Dinosaur” as a result of a local bank’s marketing effort.

The couch adage is how the museum continues to strive to grow. For example, the Biz After 5 gathering through the Clinton Area Chamber of Commerce, allows area businesses to throw a party here. That’s blossomed into businesses renting the museum out. Even before Biz After 5, Lyondell's Rec Club has held their Easter Egg hunt here. The Boy Scouts just had an all-day heritage badge clinic on April 27. In the end, for all of these events, the museum is simply a space and the employees/representatives of these organizations do all the work. We supply the exhibits, the electricity, and minimal staff.

A few years ago, a new program helped us serve a new audience. The Mississippi Bend Area Education Agency came to us to see if we would be interested in hosting an Early Childhood Playgroup. In 2016, the United Way of Clinton County, Iowa provided a one-time funding grant to get the program started. Now in 2019, most of our original families have moved on, but the program continues with United Way of Clinton County, Iowa support. United Way of Clinton County, Iowa allows the program to be free for adults, as toddlers are always free at the Sawmill Museum. On the first and third Thursdays from September to May, AEA staff are on hand to monitor, facilitate, and model social, play, and language skills. They are the heart of the event, especially Pam Deluhery and Lauren Seden, but during any week you will see other AEA staff, also.

For the United Way of Clinton County, Iowa and the AEA, the benefit is of course having parents try out skills, learn about resources, and form a social bond. For our toddlers, the main objective is to have neuro-diverse and neuro-typical toddlers both learning skills from each other. Also, the AEA is making sure everyone is modeling correct skills and behavior as well. What’s formed is something more than just a playgroup, but rather, a true example of the museum being a “couch.”

This is ultimately what United Way of Clinton County, Iowa is supporting; it’s a social event for 10-30 families, depending on the weather and the week. While there are real goals of the program, the success of the program is more. Every week, toddlers and their parents are meeting to grow together, find resources, ask questions from the AEA and other parents, and really have a safe, social space for a Thursday morning. There’s no craft and no program, except at 10:45 a.m. there is song time. But what you do see is every parent engaged with their child and other children. Not to mention, the program allows for a great test of language development and social skills.

So why is this Early Childhood Playgroup successful? It’s not that it is free. Some studies show that being free will result in a visitorship of people who have a higher income than your regular visitors. Given museum hours and our location, being free doesn’t mean anything. Time and other competitors will always provide an excuse.

The Early Childhood Playgroup is successful because we meet two visitor experience types. We have facilitators, people who want to bring their children to an event that provides some tangible benefit. By the way, this helps if you have free events for facilitators because they will probably go to every toddler event in town! The second one that we have managed to serve is the rechargers; a large portion of our visitors to the Early Childhood Playgroup want the restorative experiences.

The social bond is important because Clinton County has a lot to offer for the growth of toddlers. The Clinton Public Library offers multiple programs for early childhood. The Discovery Center has Friday and Wednesday programming. The EcoCenter in Camanche is a huge hit for a few of our regular guests because they love story time – not to mention a few of the naturalists out there. They all offer a different element of development. But for the Sawmill Museum, it goes back to being a social space. We enjoy more how they all have booked a birthday party, visit again, and form bonds with fellow parents.

It’s the real reason museums love being the “couch.” We create these environments and spaces to be utilized for a litany of things outside of our mission. The museum might be open seven days a week, have a Lumberjack Festival on June 8, do regular Saturday programming, host field trips, visit schools and organizations, have a summer camp, host adult programming, and the list goes on. But as any museum will tell you, those traditional lines of programming and services don’t earn enough revenue. You need to figure out the motivations of why your visitors come, and find ways to align services to those motivations. Personally, I witness parents lift each other up as they share in trying to tackle a shared challenge in raising a toddler.

Without United Way of Clinton County, Iowa support, we couldn’t have this sort of program for toddlers, especially for free. And of course, this is what United Way of Clinton County, Iowa does throughout the community. So many agencies can use a metaphor that relates to a part of the house. What it goes back to is Sarah Lind’s metaphor of choice, the three-legged stool: strong private (business) sector, strong public sector, and a strong non-profit sector.

The United Way of Clinton County, Iowa allows all three to connect and provide beneficial services. But it also helps provide a way for all three to connect. And I think we can all benefit from as many programs that combine facilitators and rechargers, because what an experience! It’s a self-made support group that couldn’t happen without the AEA and the United Way of Clinton County, Iowa.

Matthew Parbs,

Director of the Sawmill Museum