Three Virginia clubs combine to create magic in a children’s library space.
Story By Julie Saetre • Photos by Katherine Sparks
In 2017, when staff at the James City County Library in Williamsburg, Virginia, launched a monthly large-scale STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) program for children, the response was immediate and enthusiastic.
That didn’t surprise Sandy Towers, then the library’s youth services director.
“There were no free places where kids and their families could go and experience these kinds of learning activities,” Towers, now the library’s assistant director, says. “We realized that there was nothing in our community that was addressing that need.”
The library, located in a less-populated area of the city, was underused, despite its bright, spacious 7,500-square-foot children’s area. So when STEAM Saturdays became an instant hit, staff saw an opportunity.
“That’s when we thought, ‘Maybe we can create this kind of learning every day, seven days a week,’” Towers says.
James City County owns the library and agreed to fund the basics needed for a remodel of the children’s space: lights, carpeting, etc. But Betsy Fowler, the library’s director, envisioned and designed a space filled with a blend of interactive STEAM exhibits integrated alongside corresponding book collections. Who better to answer the call than Kiwanians?
“The Kiwanis groups and friends did what we call the magic,” Towers says, “which is all of the exciting exhibits that the kids enjoy.”
The library foundation’s major-gifts chairperson is also a member of the Williamsburg Kiwanis Club. He shared information about the project with the club, and fellow member Rolf Kramer immediately volunteered to chair a committee to raise funds. He reached out to the Toano and Colonial Capital Kiwanis clubs, and for the first time, the three collaborated on a project.
Each club set a fundraising goal in accordance with its size; together, they raised US$112,000 for what would become the Kiwanis Kids Idea Studio. It celebrated its grand opening in June 2021 — much to the delight of the 2,000 children who visited that first day alone.
The transformed space now features hands-on exhibits that combine learning with fun, created specifically for the library after Towers and Fowler toured multiple children’s museums to glean ideas. The 12-foot-tall Awesome Air Tubes use air-propelled scarves to help kids understand cause and effect. A giant Lite-Brite-type display allows young visitors to create designs out of colorful backlit Lucite pegs.
Other exhibits include a large vertical LEGO® board, a magnetic gear wall and a kid-size kitchen, fully stocked market and a veterinary office complete with X-rays of real animals.
“We were hoping to create a space where the kids would want to come back again and again and again,” Towers says.
By any measure, they succeeded. The Kiwanis Kids Idea Studio saw 4,000 children visit weekly during the busy months of June, July and August this year. And circulation of children’s materials has increased 31%.
“Let me tell you,” says Towers, “it’s a happy place.”
This story originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of Kiwanis magaine.