Anatomy of a Miracle
It came to her in a dream.
No, really. It seems such a hokey thing to say. But it’s true.
Allyson Loos had a dream. In it she was walking through a wonderful place with her daughter Bianca. At first, the setting wasn’t important. She was with her daughter. The daughter she lost at 13 months. The daughter whose laugh she couldn’t forget, but would never hear again.
She was with her daughter. It had been a year since Bianca passed. The dream was a blessing. In it, Bianca showed Allyson around a children’s museum.
“I just knew right then that that was supposed to happen,” Loos says, a decade later, tears welling up in her eyes. “I was supposed to do it for her. It’s that simple.”
Loos is sitting in a side room at Food & Thought, the organic grocery and restaurant, surrounded by some of her closest friends—the five women and one man who helped turn her dream into a reality. She starts crying. Pretty soon there isn’t a dry eye in the place.
Barring any setbacks, the Golisano Children’s Museum of Naples is scheduled to open next month. Inside, it is a whimsical world full of places for children to explore, places that will teach them about the world on the outside and the strength they hold within.
The finished product is both exactly as Loos envisioned it and so much greater than she could have imagined, 30,000 square feet of adventure and joy for families to treasure. In the coming months, Loos and the five women—Julie Koester, Nancy Ross, Kim Buckheit, Lisa Van Dien and Brenda Prioletti—will be applauded for their accomplishment. They’ll point to the man, Joe Cox, who became the point person and now executive director for the project, as the catalyst for its completion.
The opening will seem effortless. And by this time next year, the museum will likely have integrated itself seamlessly into the fabric of our community. After all, we’ve been hearing about it for years. We’ve watched anxiously as that peculiar building on Livingston Road popped up.
But the story behind it is one of seemingly impossible goals met and of a small band of dedicated people holding on to a dream.
Literally, a dream.
Enter the Catalyst
The story of the golisano Children’s Museum of Naples actually starts in the mid-’90s in London, of all places. There, a young man planned a journey around the world with his best friend after their college graduation.
“(We) had always said we’d put off working as long as possible and go travel the world,” Joe Cox remembers. “We had a whole itinerary planned out. Do the whole thing for £1,000.”
But before the trip could happen, the best friend got a job offer in Hong Kong that he couldn’t refuse. Cox was suddenly left rudderless. He still didn’t want to get a real job. He hadn’t really thought of what he was going to do next.
A chance conversation with a biology professor led to an intriguing possibility—an internship in Florida. The catch? He had to get his application in the next morning.
“So I looked at the poster he had up in his office of what it was, and it was this girl, wearing what looked like a safari outfit, on her hands and knees holding this big snake talking to a bunch of kids,” he says. “There were palm trees outside the school window. I thought, ‘I could do that.’”
Six weeks later, he was sitting in the first-class cabin of a British Airways flight bound for Miami. That was the end of his cushy accommodations.
“I got picked up in the crappiest old van you’ve ever seen,” he remembers, “and we headed across the Alley toward Naples. But we didn’t stop in Naples. We drove out to the old Briggs Nature Center off 951 … to this run-down shack at Rookery Bay. And my boss looks at me and says, ‘Did you see that nature center about four miles up the road? Be there tomorrow at 8:30 in the morning.’”
When they finally decided for sure that they were going to build a children’s museum, the band of six women thought it would be easy. Well, maybe not easy, but certainly not hard. This was Naples after all—the land of endless philanthropy. This was the place where just two years before a glamorous wine festival made its splash on the scene raising millions for children’s charities.
“Naiveté was our greatest gift,” says Lisa Van Dien.
“We had no idea what we were doing,” Julie Koester adds.
On average, from the moment of conception to the doors open to the public, it takes about 10 years to build a children’s museum. But at that moment, none of the women dreamed it would take longer than half that time.
“They asked how quickly it could be done,” says Mary Sinker, a children’s museum consultant whom the Naples group hired in 2006. “I said if you had everything in place—the money, the property, the permits, the exhibit designs—then it would be 18 months to two years. They said they wanted to do it in nine months, then a year.”
“Several of us had young children, and we just assumed they’d be growing up (in the museum),” Van Dien says. “Now they’ll be junior docents.”
In many ways, the women should be proud it happened this quickly. The word “luck” is thrown around with reckless abandon when the women talk about how they got to this point.
But it was something more than that. Each of them saw in the project something they wanted for their own families, for their children and in time for the grandchildren they hope to have.
Several of them were looking for a place for children with developmental disabilities to be free to play and interact with their peers on equal footing.
That’s actually how Cox, who is deaf in his left ear, got involved in the project. By the time he met Loos in 2004, Cox had risen from an intern at the Conservancy to the director of the Nature Center. Loos hoped to have her autistic son, Ben, attend a summer camp there. In a conversation about Ben with Cox, the plans for the museum came up.
“She said, ‘I’ve got the plan in my car. Do you want to see it?’” Cox says. “I thought, ‘Why not?’”
Cox took a look and liked what he saw. But it would be another few months before the project came back into his life. The board needed help writing an ad to find an executive director. They asked Cox for help.
“So I went out for lunch with her and a few other board members, and basically talked myself into a job,” Cox says. “As soon as I got to meet them, you just see the passion. Immediately, I wanted to be a part of that.”
Getting It Right
There are about 200 children’s museums in the U.S. No two are alike. Sure, they share a similar strand of DNA—a desire to entertain and educate. But the elite do something more. They take things—games, exhibits and interactive experiences—designed for children and make them relatable to every member of the family.
“We knew this had to be world-class if this place was going to survive in Naples,” Kim Buckheit says. “So we worked so hard to make sure it was exactly right.”
The first step was visiting other children’s museums. With some start-up funding provided by Loos’ mother-in-law, Joan, Cox and the board members started travelling the country in search of answers.
“We went and asked lots and lots of questions,” Cox says. “How many classrooms do you have? How often are they used? How many bathrooms do you have? Do you wish you had more? Everything we could think of. We wanted to learn from the successes and mistakes of the people who came before us.”
To their delight, most museums were only too happy to help, something the Naples crew is now passing on to other museums in the pipeline.
As time went on and the group of board members and auxiliary members began growing, the ideas started pouring in. In Chicago, an auxiliary member took a trip to a children’s museum and was overwhelmed at the front door by a group of children from a school field trip.
“So we built a special entrance for school buses to use,” Cox says.
They also threw out a lot of ideas that they couldn’t quite perfect.
“One thing parents kept saying is, ‘I want my children to experience seasons, I want them to play in the snow,’” Sinker says. “So we looked into building an exhibit around the seasons.”
No problem, the group thought. After all, there are plenty of ski resorts that make their own snow. How hard could it be?
“But I talked to a guy in Vermont who told us it would be cheaper to fly snow down from Vermont every day than to make the snow every day in Florida,” Sinker said. “So we had to find other ways to teach the children about cold and snow.”
Cox frequently jokes that once the museum is up and running he’s going to write a book about his experience.
“I’m going to call it How to Build a Children’s Museum in 326 Easy Steps,” he says.
The sheer number of decisions needed to make a dream become a reality is much greater than that. And sometimes they seemed insurmountable.
It took six months to come up with the right name. It took just as long to come up with a color scheme.
“Joe would drive to our homes or offices with color swatches in his car,” says Brenda Prioletti. “He’d call and say, ‘Do you have five minutes? I’m coming right over.’”
The degree of difficulty was ratcheted up by an unspoken agreement that the original board members had to be unanimous in decisions.
“We didn’t specifically say that everyone had to agree,” says Van Dien. “But we sort of found that when we all agreed it was the right decision.”
The board went to experts, when they could find them, to get the details just right. They found a therapist who specializes in working with children on the autism spectrum to help pick the most soothing wall colors.
Perhaps the most difficult part was realizing when they needed to bring in reinforcements. The small board had secured land from the county, had put together master plans and found an executive director.
But even though they had become adept fundraisers, they needed someone who could push them into the big leagues of Naples philanthropy.
“None of us were in those circles,” Van Dien says.
But, as it had throughout the process, fate intervened—this time in the form of Simone Lutgert.
Despite a strong background in philanthropy, Lutgert had never been a part of a capital campaign, let alone run one. But, in many ways, she was the perfect choice. For starters, she was undyingly devoted to the project.
“I just wrapped my arms around it,” she says. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into. But anything I do, I do it 100 percent.”
Her lack of formal fundraising training caused her to think of things outside of the normal channels. She says hired consultants told her how she should approach the project.
“But that wasn’t me,” she says. “I try to be a very authentic person. I had to expose people to the project and hope they would get behind it like I had.”
One of the ideas she’s most proud of was a short storybook she wrote about the museum from the perspective of a child wandering through the finished product. She believed that if people could see the experience children would have there, they would understand its importance.
“It’s a different sort of education than you get from school, no matter what school you go to,” she says. “There’s more to learning than what’s on the (standardized tests).”
Through Lutgert’s evangelism for the project, the board continued to expand. Now-chairman Ed Jones came on during the capital phase hoping to bring some of his Wall Street experience to the team. Notable local philanthropists, such as John Fumagali and Shelly Stayer, were brought on.
The ball seemed to be rolling. The capital campaign began with a “quiet phase” in the spring of 2007, ready to take Naples by storm.
Then, the economy collapsed. Charities everywhere started to scramble to shore up their donor bases. Suddenly, everyone was extremely cautious about how much they gave. And what seemed like a beautiful vessel looked as if it might capsize before it left the harbor.
“Was I worried?” Cox says. “Of course I was worried. There were very real discussions about shutting things down for a while and picking it up again.”
Many of the people thought their opportunity was slipping out of reach.
“But the one thing that kept us going was Ally,” Cox says. “How could you look her in the eye and say ‘I’m sorry, but the thing you want to build for your dead daughter isn’t going to happen’?”
Cox tells a story of a commercial shoot for the museum that was happening during this time. Nothing was going right. Cox, who was being filmed by board member Mayela Rosales, was having trouble with his delivery. It was hot and noisy and everyone seemed as if they were about to hit the edge.
“Then this yellow butterfly came up, and yellow was Bianca’s favorite color,” he says. “Then things just got calm, and we nailed the next take and things sort of picked up from there.”
A Place for All
Throughout the whole project, two things seemed paramount. First, the museum needed to be uniquely Naples. The museum consultant Mary Sinker says at the same time she was helping the Naples museum develop its farming exhibit, she was doing something similar in Peoria.
“And the two couldn’t be more different,” she says. “Different vegetables, different activities, just different. And that’s how it should be.
“Kids in this age range are developing a sense of self, but they are also developing their sense of place. Especially now when so many places have a lot of the same big box stores and the same chain restaurants, it’s important for them to know what’s special about the place I live.”
The second idea, and probably the most important, was that the museum should be for everyone.
“It shouldn’t matter what your economic situation, what your physical or mental difficulties might be,” Jones says. “This is a museum for the entire area.”
In that respect, the children’s museum is unique.
“That’s one thing that sets Naples apart,” Sinker says. “Nowhere else is accessibility built in from the ground up. That’s one of the things that make this so exciting.”
Sinker remembers a day early on in the community meetings that would inform the direction the museum would go for its exhibits. A young, deaf child, Jose, brought his interpreter to help him follow the meeting. Jose, who was seven at the time, wanted the museum to include a motorcycle.
His request was not unlike what a lot of boys his age would have said. But his involvement and immersion in the idea caught the attention of the organizers.
“He just made such an impact that it was put into the plan,” Sinker says.
Although changes in some exhibit design removed the motorcycle, which was to have had the license plate 4JOSE, from the museum’s final plan, Cox says they didn’t forget Jose. They added a motorcycle to a large mural in the museum.
Enter the Big Donor
Despite everyone’s best efforts, the children’s museum project seemed to stall in late 2009. They’d raised about $14 million, but had hit a wall. And, throughout the process, the ideas and plans, and the cost along with them, kept growing.
Something needed to happen to push the museum from blueprints and brochures to reality. That something came in the way of a man looking for a change.
Tom Golisano, one of America’s wealthiest men, had a long-running battle with the New York state over its tax structure. Three times he funded his own campaign for governor. Finally, the lifelong upstate New Yorker decided he needed a change of scenery.
He chose Naples, which happened to be in a state with no income taxes. It made headlines around the country.
When he got here, nonprofits were clamoring to plead their cases with a man whose name graces a lot of buildings in the Rochester and Buffalo areas.
To use a parlance the baseball-obsessed Golisano might approve of, when the children’s museum got its chance, it hit a home run.
“I was just so impressed with all of the hard work and dedication of the people there,” Golisano says. “You could tell how much they believed in the project.”
So Golisano offered up a challenge. He would donate $5 million to the cause if the museum could find another $5 million to match it. It was a great offer for the museum. But with fundraising hitting a wall, there was some concern if they could get it done.
“But that was just the little push we needed,” Cox says. “In 90 days, we had matched it. And suddenly we went from $14 million up to like $25 million.”
The museum was on its way to completion.
Brenda prioletti is reminded of a moment that has kept her going throughout the process of planning and building the museum.
It’s a story of Jake, Nancy Ross’ son. Jake has some severe developmental disabilities. But the Rosses have worked hard to get him involved in as many mainstream activities as possible. So he volunteered to be part of the chain gang at Naples High football games.
One play saw several players converge on the sideline at the exact spot Jake was standing. He ended up on the bottom of a rather large pile of players from both teams. After they cleared the players out, Jake looks up and says, “Well, that happened.”
“I live by that every day,” Prioletti says. “Well, that happened.”
It’s hard to believe that something a decade in the making could be summed up in three words. But the people behind the Golisano Children’s Museum of Naples have a hard time putting it any better.
They dreamed it. And it’s a reality.
Now, they have a museum to run.
Calendar of events
February 18: Teacher Orientation Day – Learn how C’mon can enhance your classroom instruction (registration required).
March 1: School field trips start! Has your child’s school signed up?
March 3: “Read Across America” – Celebrate Dr Seuss’s birthday at C’mon! Dress as your favorite Seuss character!
March 23: Grand Dream Gala – Join major donors to celebrate the Grand Opening of the museum.
April 1: “C’mon Pedal!” Hundreds of bikers of all ages will be cycling around Collier County to support the museum.
April 7: Founders Day – Free admission to C’mon as they celebrate the founding families.
April 14: WGCU Presents! Join C’mon on the second Saturday of each month as the museum features a different PBS Kids show. Meet characters live!
April 28: Earth Day at C’mon: One of Southwest Florida’s greenest buildings shows you how to be green every day.
May 17: World Café: Thailand – Celebrate “Visakha Bucha” day in the Thailand exhibit.
June 16: “Health Festival”– Learn how to stay safe and healthy at the inaugural Health Festival in partnership with NCH Healthcare Systems.