Kelli Stevens and Cricket Gordon were pushing a stroller along Marilyn Drive in the Broadmoor neighborhood when they came up with the idea.
The two had been best friends for years: Episcopal High classmates, LSU sorority sisters, mothers of young children whom they would tote to Gulfport for the weekend in search of what they could not find in Louisiana's capital.
Stevens could not stop replaying a picture in her mind: her baby, Celia, less than a year old, pulling herself up and falling back down as she giggled and played with a gadget in the Children's Museum of Atlanta. Stevens and Gordon asked what has since become a $14 million question: Why don't we build a children's museum here in Baton Rouge?
It has been 14 years since that conversation took place. Since then, they have ushered four other women into their museum board chairs. Their kids have grown into teenagers and adults, while their husbands have teased them about the full-time, and overtime hours, they worked without being paid.
The six women have taken turns helping to raise $13.3 million, attending children's museum conferences, visiting museums around the country and world, and exchanging emails at 3:30 a.m. as they worried about how to pay the bills for an organization relying on donations.
Not seeing the video below? Click here.
Each of them brought different skill sets to the table — Stevens and Gordon planting the initial seeds with their passion and enthusiasm, Kelli Harton and Aza Bowlin with their fundraising expertise, Staci Duhé with an endless number of contacts, and Cate Heroman with her prowess in curriculum writing and early childhood education.
The boisterous, yellow Knock Knock Children's Museum opens its doors to the public on Tuesday.
"My kids call this my fourth child that I love the most," said Duhé, a past board chairwoman for Knock Knock, mother of three and partial owner of Nursing Care Connections, Inc.
When they first started in 2003, Stevens and Gordon had never tackled a business venture together. Stevens had worked at the Children's Museum of Houston, and done some fundraising there, while Gordon helped raise $10,000 for a playground at Broadmoor United Methodist.
Perched atop a clock tower, two animatronic owls are already telling knock knock jokes every…
The impetus for the museum was never their own children, as they could take weekend trips to New Orleans and other cities with similar opportunities.
Gordon's husband was the department chair of pediatrics at the now-shuttered LSU Earl K. Long Medical Center, a state-run charity hospital. A nurse herself, Gordon was well aware that not every family is able to give their kids the opportunity she could give to her three children, and it was the children lacking such opportunities who were the inspiration behind the museum.
She and Stevens attended an Association of Children's Museums meeting in New Orleans shortly after they decided to pursue one in Baton Rouge. One of Gordon's neighbors loaned them a condo where they could stay.
"You want to talk about low budget?" Gordon laughed. "We had no budget."
Can't see video below? Click here.
At one point, Stevens' older daughter, Bailey, had a lemonade stand and donated the money from it to Knock Knock. Gordon wrote her a thank-you note, which Stevens said recently resurfaced in a scrapbook for the 18 year old. And Gordon had LSU students work with them on designing a logo for the museum, which is how the name "knock knock" originated.
"Nobody gave us a book on how to do this," Stevens said. "I solved the problems I could solve and then I passed it along to Cricket and she solved the problems she could solve …."
"It all worked out beautifully, the passing of the torch," Gordon added.
In 2005, Harton moved to Baton Rouge from Boston with her husband and three children. She had done fundraising and development work in Boston, and met Gordon and Stevens at a book club. They were giddy, she remembered, about an upcoming meeting with the mayor to brainstorm locations for the museum.
The Knock Knock Children’s Museum in Baton Rouge, conceived more than a decade ago, will ope…
Stevens and Gordon quickly reeled her in once they found out she had fundraising experience.
"There's not a woman at this table that did not have a sleepless night," Harton said, as she and the five others sat around a table in the Knock Knock maker shop. She gestured to the $775,000 storybook climber, perhaps the most iconic feature of the museum. "You're laying in bed and you hired the construction people but you don't have the money to build it."
Duhé was the next to join the ranks, also around 2005. She spent a week in Huntsville, Alabama, where she was amazed by the number of museums and places for her daughter to pass the time. When she could not stop talking about it, friends suggested she call Stevens, who invited her to a board meeting at Stevens' kitchen table.
At one point, Duhé's daughter, Sydney, said during a brainstorm session that she wanted the museum to have a tree that she could climb and read in. Once the construction of the museum finished this summer, Duhé brought in now 21-year-old Sydney and they took turns ascending up the colorful books stacked all the way up to the museum's ceiling. They reached the top and found themselves crying.
For Duhé, learning how to ask people for money, and how to accept the rejections, were among the most important lessons.
Donations and grants came in along the way, but they were slow. One of the most important ones was a $3 million gift in 2010 from BREC — which had been given to the agency by a private donor who wanted money invested in early childhood development — along with the land at City Park.
It was 2009 when current board chair Aza Bowlin moved from Indianapolis to Baton Rouge with her husband and four-and-a-half-year-old twin boys. She had grown accustomed to spending snowy days in Indianapolis at the children's museum there, the largest in the country.
Atop a hill overlooking City Park, the Knock Knock Children's Museum should offer some of th…
Bowlin had professional fundraising experience with universities and hospitals, and started helping with auctions for Mary Bird Perkins when she moved to Baton Rouge. She and her husband became founding members of Knock Knock, and Harton seized on Bowlin's fundraising experience.
"You and I both know we could be running bake sales," Bowlin recalled Harton telling her. "But you know you have a lot of talent and you could be raising money to build a children's museum."
Bowlin remembered how proud she was recently when one of her sons, Strader, told a friend he couldn't hang out because he was going to visit "my mom's museum."
The final piece of the puzzle was Heroman, who calls herself the grandmother of the group. She retired in 2012 after spending her career working in various aspects of education, as a teacher and a staffer at Washington, D.C.-based Teaching Strategies, LLC.
Heroman was looking for a way to stay connected to early childhood development, and heard about opportunities with Knock Knock through Junior League. She and Duhé met at a CC's coffeehouse, and Duhé won her over when she pulled out a massive book showing the renderings they envisioned for each exhibit.
The soon-to-open Knock Knock Children's Museum plans to offer reduced admission to families …
"Every time she turned a page and talked about it, I knew the philosophy of this organization paralleled with me," said Heroman, who is now next in line to be board chair.
She brought a sharp eye to the renderings and helped determine how to incorporate educational components into them, using her four grandchildren to test things out. Heroman also helped find and secure the grant that will help with reduced admission for poor families, which all of the women say was a goal for them but they did not know how to make it happen.
Each Knock Knock exhibit also has tips along the walls that Heroman devised to help parents and teachers know how to help their kids learn in the museum.
She and Bowlin said it's especially fun to have been so involved in seeing the museum take its shape, but both remembered the history to get there.
"I just happened to hit at this moment," Bowlin said. "But we wouldn't be here without each of us."