When Julie Burtnette moved to Des Moines, Iowa, she was surprised to learn there wasn’t a children’s museum in an area that was so ideal for raising families. After meeting fellow Des Moines mom Laura Johnson, the two bonded over the idea of potentially starting a children’s museum themselves. One year later, Burtnette and Johnson received non-profit status for the Des Moines Children’s Museum. Two years in, and they’ve successfully fundraised enough money to open their first location with plans for a permanent space in the works.
Johnson and Burtnette’s story, as told to The Story Exchange 1,000+ Stories Project:
In 2016, I moved to Des Moines from Chicago. I was constantly told that Des Moines was a great place for kids and to raise a family. The schools are great and the neighborhoods are safe, but I was shocked to learn they did not have a children’s museum. A few months after moving to Des Moines, I was having pizza with a new friend, Laura Johnson, after a park playdate. We lamented the lack of a local children’s museum and decided to look into starting one on our own. At the time, it seemed like a whim, but after doing some research we learned that children’s museums are usually started by a group of parents who want it for their community. As far as we could tell, the only reason Des Moines didn’t have one was because no one had done it yet, so we decided to get to work.
We used the legal service department at a local university to get incorporated and received non-profit status in April of 2017. We went to work creating a traveling exhibit and brought it to more than 30 family-friendly events that spring and summer. In November of 2017, we opened the first location of the Des Moines Children’s Museum in Valley West Mall in West Des Moines. This volunteer-run non-profit has raised enough money through admissions to fund a feasibility study and capital campaign. Based on community support and interest of corporate sponsors, a permanent facility seems inevitable.
Success for us will be building our early community support into a thriving museum that will continue to grow and serve the community beyond our personal involvement. Our motivation from the beginning has been our belief that a children’s museum is an invaluable resource for the community, and we want that for Des Moines. Our goal is to create something that will continue to serve the community even if we are not personally there every day to open the doors and sell tickets. Play is the foundation for brain development that young children need to succeed in school and beyond. A successful children’s museum will help to create a culture that values play as a vital part of early learning, as well as serve as a tourist attraction and a draw for the young workforce needed in a growing community.
“A successful children’s museum will help to create a culture that values play as a vital part of early learning, as well as serve as a tourist attraction and a draw for the young workforce needed in a growing community.”
– Julie Burtnette, Co-Founder of Des Moines Children’s Museum
Our biggest success so far was probably our launch party on June 9th of 2017. We received a letter informing us that we had received nonprofit status on April 21st of 2017, and made our Facebook page and website public that day. We weren’t expecting this to be a huge step. Our plan at the time was to begin requesting free 10’x10′ vendor spaces at local farmers’ markets so that we could bring a few children’s activities and talk to parents while their kids played, and direct them to visit our website and follow our Facebook page.
What actually happened was that over 1,000 people were following our page by the next day, and event planners were contacting us about bringing our traveling exhibit to community events. We quickly expanded the plans for our exhibit to fill the spaces we were being offered and realized we would need a trailer to haul it all. Since we had just received 501(c)(3) status and gone public, we hadn’t done any fundraising yet. We decided to dramatically expand our plans for our summer exhibit and hold a fundraiser to support it. On June 9th, 7 weeks after going public, we held a launch party for our summer traveling exhibit where over 100 families showed up to support us, and we raised over $2,500.
We felt like the launch party was a big test case for us. We knew that people were excited on Facebook about a local children’s museum, but we weren’t sure that likes on social media would translate to people being willing to actually show up and open their wallets to support us. We were overwhelmed by the response, and that early success gave us the confidence to keep moving forward.
As we have continued to grow, we have relied on an all-volunteer staff to continue to reinvest into the organization. Keeping this hard-working team engaged and focused on the mission is a constant challenge. We have done this through a family-friendly atmosphere that allows children to play at the museum, while volunteers work. Our volunteers have brought the mission to life and are invigorated by the progress we have made.
In this project, we have been role models for each other. Neither one of us could have pulled this off on our own. We lean on each other for support and encouragement, and when one of us needs a break, the other is there to pick up the slack. We can’t overstate the value of having a partner in an overwhelming project like this. Our strengths and weaknesses complement each other and allow us to persist through the frequent setbacks, and share the excitement of our successes.