Started by a group of retired educators who wanted to inspire local children, the Children’s Hands-On Museum of Northwest Illinois has become a family fixture at Freeport’s Lincoln Mall. (Sherry Maves photos)

Freeport’s New Attraction for Families

Some museums ask you not to touch anything, but at this hands-on attraction, it’s openly encouraged. Step inside this family fixture and learn how a group of retired educators turned a dream into a reality.

Started by a group of retired educators who wanted to inspire local children, the Children’s Hands-On Museum of Northwest Illinois has become a family fixture at Freeport’s Lincoln Mall. (Sherry Maves photos)
Started by a group of retired educators who wanted to inspire local children, the Children’s Hands-On Museum of Northwest Illinois has become a family fixture at Freeport’s Lincoln Mall. (Sherry Maves photos)

Walking into the Children’s Hands-On Museum of Northwest Illinois (CHOM), 1233 W. Galena Ave., Freeport, you’re likely to encounter smiles, giggles and squeals of delight as little ones explore the colorful wonderland of interactive exhibits.

A curious toddler tries to figure out how a plastic shape fits into a slot, while a small boy marvels at the furry stuffed cow and horse in the big red barn. Another child’s eyes sparkle as she inspects an old-fashioned reed organ before strumming the harp (the inside of a piano) in the music room. Instead of being admonished not to touch, children are encouraged to explore, run their hands over objects, pick them up and discover what makes them work. A joyful spirit fills the museum as children play and learn at their own pace.

With 6,500 square feet of permanent and changing exhibits to ignite the imagination, the museum’s mission is to offer an accessible, affordable, interactive and educational environment that will inspire children and families to learn about themselves and our culturally diverse world.

A budding artist may don a painter’s apron to create a masterpiece in the Art Smart room, while future farmers play on toy tractors and plant a garden in the Farm to Fork exhibit. The S.T.E.M (science, technology, engineering, math) area offers plenty of exhibits for the inquisitive mind to explore, while a music room and drama stage encourages imaginations to blossom. Today’s playtime in the museum’s health clinic may plant a seed for tomorrow’s shining star in the medical field.

A unique element of the museum is its sensory room, which features equipment geared toward children with special needs. The judgment-free zone is a place where children, when feeling overwhelmed, can retreat from the high-energy activity in the rest of the play space.

A Dream Becomes Reality

In 2013, retired teacher Shirley Jordan started drumming up community support for a children’s hands-on museum. Many other retired educators soon joined in.

Gwynne French helped Jordan lug heavy homemade displays to pop-up events and speaking engagements throughout the area. Soon, they were joined by Jessi Larson, the current museum president, and Susan Walt. The women – all retired educators – tirelessly visited schools in Freeport, Lena, Pearl City, Stockton and Orangeville and made appearances at community events such as Union Dairy Days and the Stephenson County Fair. If it would bring exposure to the hands-on children’s museum, they were there.

“My aunt always said I had fire in my belly,” Larson laughs.

The museum had become a very personal thing to all of the women involved, and together, they were a tour de force.

“But we couldn’t have done the pop-ups without the support and help from our spouses,” Jordan adds.

The move forward was slow, but the women did their research by visiting children’s museums in Pennsylvania, Indiana, Wisconsin, Utah, Ohio, Kentucky, Iowa and Illinois. They knew what kids needed, and they spoke with museum groups to find out what worked and what didn’t.

However, the business component was missing in the equation, so Larson approached her father, Mark Miller, a retired businessman from Honeywell who also teaches part time at Highland Community College.

Miller helped create a business plan and timeline for a crucial presentation in November 2017 to an organization called 100 Women Who Care, Stephenson County. The group is committed to making an impact on the community by supporting local nonprofit organizations.

As the mother of an autistic child, with the children’s museum tugging at her heartstrings, Larson carefully crafted her speech. Financial support was desperately needed in order to move forward. When 100 Women Who Care awarded the museum $11,000, both Larson and Jordan were in tears.

“It was much more than the money,” Larson says. “In a huge way, we received the validation we needed.”

“It was the shot in the arm that we needed to carry on,” Jordan adds.

That night proved to be a turning point for the museum.

“I felt a huge personal responsibility to bring the dream to fruition,” Larson says. She laughs how, in 2018, her dad only intended to answer an invitation to speak to the board, but before he knew what had happened, he had been voted in as a children’s museum board member.

Once space was secured at Freeport’s Lincoln Mall, volunteers seemed to appear out of nowhere to breathe life into the museum. Many local craftsmen, woodworkers and artisans created projects at home. Construction foreman Kevin Carpenter, of Cedarville, Ill., along with carpenters Chris Brennan, Bob Pederson, Stan Buttel and Andy Leverton, put in countless hours on the big red barn, stage and storefronts. Met Life Work Crew and high school Career Tech students cleaned and painted. Momentum Art Guild (MAG) refurbished a striking 8-foot by 27-foot “Our Changing Woodlands” mural that had been salvaged by the Audubon Society when an old lodge was torn down at Freeport’s Oakdale Nature Preserve. Freeport artist Terry Werntz painted the Build Freeport doorframe; CHOM board members, spouses and friends donated untold hours; other volunteers stepped up where needed.

Fast forward to March 22, 2019, when the community came out in full force for the ribbon cutting and opening of the museum.

“I feel a renewed energy in Freeport, and the museum is one of the great assets the area has to offers,” says Dovie Anderson, a museum board member. “It’s an exciting time to be part of such a positive endeavor for the children.”

Visiting the Museum

During the summer, the museum is open Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Fall, winter and spring hours are Friday 10 a.m.-2 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m.- 4 p.m., and Sunday noon to 4 p.m. Daily admission is $6 per person, with children 24 months and younger free. Annual family memberships are $80.

The museum currently hosts birthday parties and welcomes area schoolchildren for field trips.

“The board is exploring a future initiative to provide a pay what you can day or a reduced price or free day,” Larson adds. “CHOM wants the museum to be accessible to all children, not just those family who have the resources to pay admission.”

For more information or to plan a field trip or party, call (815) 238-4572 or email [email protected].