Wonder Works museum will celebrate its fifth anniversary Saturday, Oct. 25, at its 6445 W. North Ave. home. Yet the learning playground for children and parents dates to 1991, when it was founded by Oak Parker Gale Zemel and group of volunteers.
The museum had lost its lease in 1995 and was without a home until 2001, when it bought a building on North Avenue. It reopened there in 2003.
Today, administrators say the museum is fulfilling its original mission: to create an interactive and fun experience for children. While the museum will celebrate its past, it’s also looking toward the future.
Executive Director Mary Bodlak said the museum is looking for new space twice the size of its current 6,400 square feet. But that move won’t happen for about two years. Wonder Works would like to stay in Oak Park, but is open to other areas, she said.
A larger location will allow the museum to expand its programs and classes. On Friday afternoon, museum staff-totaling six-were preparing for a birthday party. Wonder Works hosts birthday parties and other functions, but can only book one at a time. A larger space can allow them to book more than one.
“We feel like we’ve utilized all of our space,” said Bodlak, who started at the museum as a volunteer. Before joining Wonder Works, Bodlak was executive director of Oak Park’s Partners In Play. A national program that began in 1980, Partners In Play focuses on exercise and play for babies to toddlers. Art and music are worked into the program, which also involves parents in the fun, physical activities.
The Oak Park program offered classes at area churches, before finding a space at 641 S. Oak Park Ave. But when Wonder Works found its location, the two entities combined. The museum now has programs for infants to 10-year-olds. Classes for the youngest visitors starts with such options as Bouncing Babies, which focus on an infant’s range of movement, and graduate to Jumping Juniors and Moving and Grooving.
Bodlak said it was a natural progression for her to join Wonder Works. She became the executive director in September 2007.
“The museum was growing and needed classes to round out its offerings,” Bodlak said. “They were stronger together than separate,” she said, referring to Wonder Works and Partners In Play.
The museum’s attendance has also expanded. It drew an estimated 55,000 visitors last year. Visitors, said Bodlak, come from surrounding communities such as Maywood, Melrose Park and Galewood and Chicago, including Austin. The museum hosts school field trips, which it would like to expand, Bodlak said.
John Harris, president of the museum’s board of directors since its reopening, was drawn to Wonder Works because of his young children at the time. With a background in advertising and design, Harris supported the museum’s mission and got involved.
“It was clear what they were trying to bring to the community: learning through creativity,” he said. “What I was looking for was a way to promote creativity in children.”
Harris said the museum wants to establish partnerships with community organizations, including groups in Austin. Wonder Works relies on money from class fees and membership dues; about 40 percent of its budget comes from grants, donations and fundraisers. Saturday’s gala and a golf outing in June are the biggest fundraisers. The gala will include entertainment, both silent and live auctions, and, of course, activities for children.
“There’s no other museum like Wonder Works,” Harris said.