Small wonders

Wonder Works Children's Museum celebrates creativity, fun and a new exhibit

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By LIZ JAROS

On a crisp Friday afternoon in Oak Park, under a billowing satin sky inside Wonder Works Children's Museum, a small panic is mounting. It seems a rogue cucumber has temporarily shut down operation of the produce moverâ€"a 15-foot conveyor belt system that's integral to the organization's new Farm to Market exhibitâ€"and the eyes of at least 20 kids are fixed on the machine's creator, Joe Fiacchino, as he kneels down for a look-see.

Frozen in time as they wait for the impending extrication, some kids hold bushels full of plastic apples and pears. Others clutch faux dollars in front of a market stand where fresh produce is expected to arrive momentarily. A few are paused with overflowing wheelbarrows between orchard and barn.

They range in age from 12 months to about 10 years and come from diverse backgrounds. And although most of them have only known each other for 10 minutes, they've been working together like seasoned farm hands. Until now.

As Fiacchino reaches carefully beneath the Plexiglas with the wayward cuke in his sites, one thing's for sure. If this takes any longer than 30 seconds, there's going to be a riot in here. These kids have big plans. Mechanical malfunction is not an option.

The removal is successful. The crowd cheers. The flurry of activity resumes. The folks at Wonder Works breathe a sigh of relief and return to greeting museum patrons who've come out in droves to attend this, their Farm to Market grand opening.

"The best part about this exhibit is that it requires collaboration," says Wonder Works' Executive Director Elizabeth Smith. "At least three kids need to work together to operate the conveyor belt, which has cranks in three different places."

While a couple of older kids weigh incoming fruit and set market prices on a chalkboard, members of the toddler set are either plucking fruit from the pockets of soft fabric trees or filling and dumping their wagons. Others are cranking apples through a mock-juicer. Even the littlest farmers are enjoying the action, from a distance, inside the soft padded walls of an infant nest complete with baby ducks and pussy willow appliques.

Phase two of the exhibit will include a cornfield and an energy-efficient farmhouse, says Smith. Part of tonight's grand opening festivities include the posting of a wish list that hopefully will help secure some of the items needed to bring those plans to fruition.

Market forecast

When Wonder Works first opened at 6445 W. North Ave. in 2003, seven years after losing its original home in Scoville Square, the Farm to Market experience was just one component of a grand plan for the 6,400 square foot facility: to serve as a microcosm of the Illinois landscape.

Wonder Works' board members and administrators began the exhibit planning phase "by asking 'What is Oak Park?' and 'What is Illinois?'" says Smith. "We wanted this to be not just a community place, but a tourist attraction as well."

Knowing that they wouldn't be able to implement Farm to Market right away, Wonder Works personnel employed the space that would eventually house the exhibit as an all-purpose room while raising funds and hashing out details. In the two-year interim, staff and volunteers focused on getting the surrounding exhibits up and running, but kept an eye on the big picture.

"We wanted to depict the relationship between land that hasn't been developed and that which has been refined," says Smith.

In Wonder Works' first experienceâ€"Smith and company use the word "experience" whenever possible because they believe it has a less static connotation than the word exhibitâ€"children are drawn into the Great Outdoors by the sounds of croaking frogs, chirping crickets and a babbling brook. Through a small opening in the fringy canopy of a central willow tree, they enter a secret world rich with opportunity for exploration. Inside, they can fish from a rowboat, camp in a tent or look out from a tree house.

And now, from wetlands and forest, museum visitors can wander out into the prairie, where they'll encounter Farm to Market. Set against a hand-painted wall mural depicting a vast, rural landscape, the new exhibit puts children in touch with their pioneer roots and helps illuminate the link between earth and table.

Moving into the city, small and large building materials create opportunity for kids to become architects, construction workers and engineers in Wonder Works' Build It exhibit. Nearby, a hands-on art studio and a full-scale performance stageâ€"complete with lighting, costume, makeup, camera and audio manipulativesâ€"encourage museum-goers to express themselves and create a little local culture of their own.

"From the start, we knew we wanted to create experiences that were not directed," says Smith. "We were striving for something closer to chaos . . . for this to be a space of imagination. One of my favorite photos is of a kid dressed in a ballerina outfit with a hard hat on. That's what it's all about here."

Tough row to hoe

With Farm to Market up and running, active memberships totaling more than 1,000 and donations coming in from the likes of McDonald's Charities, the Oprah Winfrey Foundation, the Illinois State Tourism Bureau and the Irving B. Harris Foundation, it seems things are finally starting to click for this once struggling operation.

Early on, a highly publicized lack of leadership surrounding the dismissal of Wonder Works' first executive director led to a rocky rebirth for this neighborhood darling. But instead of filling the vacant position with a warm body, Smith says the board took its time to address specific needs and be very strategic about hiring someone new. Financial savvy and fundraising experience would be high on the list of must-haves for a qualified candidate.

Ultimately, after serving as board treasurer and managing Wonder Works' fiscal responsibilities during the interim, Smith accepted the executive director position herself last July.

"I realized that we needed someone with administrative and budgetary skills; someone to handle the non-sexy stuff," Smith recalls. "And I thought, 'I have these skills, and this is really a sorely needed community service.'" As a bonus, she would get to see kids in action every day and occasionally be allowed to exercise her creativity.

Smith admits the job has been challenging. "The fundraising environment is really tight right now," she says. "Operating a small, non-profit is pretty tricky."

And there are no clear job descriptions at a place like Wonder Works. "When someone asks for help, you go," Smith says. "You might be a cook, a toilet plunger, a window washer and a puke cleaner by the end of the day. You never know."

Smith believes the cause makes the effort worthwhile, though. "Our goal is to ultimately serve the entire near West Side and act as a resource for early childhood experience," she says. Wonder Works now has 13 board members, nine staff members, a team of regular volunteers and a host of private sector supporters dedicated to making that happen.

Through relationships with organizations like PADS, Parenthesis, Vital Bridges, Oak-Leyden and the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust, Wonder Works also provides free membership and field trip opportunities for underserved families and schools throughout the Chicago area. To subsidize the funding of such endeavors, provide staff enrichment opportunities and serve as a corporate example of non-profit support, General Electric recently presented Wonder Works with a $10,000 check.

Grass roots

Standing on the edge of the crowd while State Sen. Don Harmon and Oak Park Village President David Pope deliver words of appreciation for Wonder Works' latest accomplishment, is the woman who started it all.

Gale Zemel launched the original Wonder Works on Lake Street in 1991 and has played an active role in its renaissance on North Avenue. Tonight, she and husband Dave Mausener socialize and share the joy derived from seeing children come together in a setting like this.

"Play is the ultimate equalizer," says Zemel. "There's no difference here between those with paid memberships and those with donated ones. They're all just kids having fun." And for parents and caregivers, a place like this provides an invaluable opportunity to network, socialize and occasionally preserve some sanity.

"What I'm most proud of is that there's nothing in this museum that says, 'This is the way to do it,'" she adds. "The whole idea is to encourage creativity and cooperation. This is a great gift to the community."

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