HAMMOND — The Louisiana Children’s Discovery Center, marking its 10th anniversary of service to children, their parents, teachers and guardians, is once again open on a limited scale after closures for several months because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Patti Robique, executive director of the children’s museum, said the facility is open for a day camp restricted to no more than 20 children who gather at the museum from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, and visitation periods for the public on Fridays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon, and Sundays from 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.
“After giving this a tremendous amount of thought and study, our board of directors decided that we could safely handle these new uses of the museum. We have 10,000 square feet of space and technically, we could host as many as 75 persons at a time. However, we wanted to exercise as many safety measures as we possibly could while still providing this service to the community,” Robique said.
Those wishing to visit the museum during the open hours on the weekends must call to make reservations and no more than 30 persons at a time will be allowed to enter the building. Robique said masks are mandatory and temperatures will be checked when guests enter. The center maintains a contact tracing list of all visitors. She said her staff has been cleaning the museum on a daily basis and the virus threat has proven to be a challenge for her and her staff.
“We learned from experience to take every precaution that we possibly can. Several weeks ago, we decided to open for two weeks on a limited basis, but along the way there were some suspicions that some of our employees just might have come in contact with persons who might have been exposed to the virus. I didn’t feel comfortable with the situation and didn’t know what to expect, so we closed again. I just wanted to be sure that we would not be a threat to anyone,” she said.
After all precautions were taken, Robique said, the museum reopened several weeks ago.
“I’m here during the day camps to assure that the entire center is properly sanitized after the end of every visitation. We had always followed cleanliness guidelines before so this was not something new for us. We are just being even more cautious at this time.”
Robique explained that at the end of each day, six employees join her in sanitizing every surface in the building. She said the group spends two hours sanitizing the building. She said the museum maintains two sets of toys and after a camp session the set used that day is sanitized and put aside while the second set is used. The toys are rotated from day to day.
“We have been going through a huge amount of sanitizer. We are grateful that Exxon donated 25 gallons of the best sanitizer available for our use,” Robique said.
The Louisiana Children’s Discovery Center was opened to the public in fall 2010, and for many years, it was the only children’s museum in the Florida Parishes. Before the coronavirus threat, the museum drew visitors from throughout the region and even from Mississippi. Over the years, the museum attracted 2,500 to 3000 visitors a month. The museum was a popular place for schoolchildren to enjoy field trips and bus loads of children would come to the museum from schools in Baton Rouge and other municipalities from a wide area of the state.
The museum was established by the Hammond City Council after a group of residents asked the city to help fund the attraction. Originally, the museum was funded, in part, from revenue derived from bingo parlors. As that source of income waned, the city allocated funds on an annual basis to support the museum.
The museum also generated funds from corporate sponsors, admission fees and fees charged for birthday parties and field trips. Robique estimates that the cost for operating the museum on an annual basis is about $325,000, and last year the city contributed $110,000 for operational expenses. The city’s contribution has been reduced for the coming fiscal year, she said.
“The coronavirus threat has certainly hurt us financially. We generated much of our funds in the spring with school field trips and we lost all of that when the schools closed. We also lost admission fees when we had to close our doors. With no more birthday parties and reduced camps, we are facing some challenges in maintaining the center financially, but the board is confident that we will get through this,” she said.
The Children’s Discovery Center hosts an array of attractions for children and young teens. A few of the stations where the youngsters can play are the Middendorf’s Restaurant; a simulated fishing boat; a huge plastic cow that can be “milked;” an ambulance with a human torso where children can learn about CPR; a building center that features all the materials that go into home construction; an electric train; a small animal hospital where children can learn pet care; slides and climbing apparatus; a bubble machine that allows children to stand inside a bubble; a small theater complete with costumes; and numerous other play and learning stations. New to the center is a toddler’s exhibit.
The day camps feature a creation station where various skills are taught. Each day at the camp features a theme, for example, the fish in the sea, and videos and stories are used to teach children about the day’s theme.
“We are constantly working to bring new experiences to the children we serve. During normal times, we offer a variety of learning experiences, including such things as visual and performing arts. This is a very special place, and it has proven to be an important part of what Hammond has to offer to children who come here from a wide area," Robique said.
About the future, Robique said, “I don’t have a crystal ball and I don’t know what the future holds, but realistically, I just don’t see how we can be all the way back to the place where we were before the virus for the next several months. The board has been talking about the future, and we are making some tentative plans and tossing around some ideas. For example, we just don’t know when, and how, the schools will be reopening. We have talked about offering sessions for tweens where they could come here and do their school lessons in a safe environment with some tutorial help.
"We just want to use our considerable resources to help the children and their parents to get through these tough times. We know there are many challenges ahead, but this museum was founded by local citizens and businesses who saw the need for a children’s museum. Their interest and support caused this great place to be founded in the first place and we just know that we will get through this and keep on being what we have always been: a place where children can come to learn while they enjoy playing in a very special place.”