NEWTOWN, Conn. (AP) — Months before she was killed in a gunman’s rampage, Sandy Hook Elementary School Principal Dawn Hochsprung wrote a letter expressing her excitement over an effort to bring a children’s museum to Newtown.
At the time, the proposal was fairly modest: a building of perhaps 20,000 square feet would provide art and science programs for area children.
Since last month’s massacre, the plan has become more ambitious, with museums around the country collecting donations and organizers looking to renovate a 52,000-square-foot building to host the new learning center. A capital campaign that was to begin in the spring will start right away, with hopes of raising $10 million instead of the original $4 million.
“The need for the children’s museum, which everyone thought was a great idea before, became almost a necessity,” said Kristin Chiriatti, the museum’s president. “People understood that the children will need a place to heal. We have so many children who are scared to go to school now and may have lifelong poor associations with learning.”
It will still be a community museum, Chiriatti said, but it will also be a destination point for southwestern Connecticut.
The museum, first proposed in 2011, was to feature rotating exhibits on such topics as electricity, sound and outer space. Chiriatti called it “Everwonder,” a play on the wonder the museum is meant to evoke and her question as to whether it would be possible to build, she said.
The group had been involved in hosting programs at the local library and envisioned a place for children to draw and conduct experiments.
Hochsprung wrote to Chiriatti in March that she supported the idea to engage students with hands-on, interactive experiences.
“In order for students to learn, they must be invested in what we are teaching,” she wrote.
On Dec. 14, Hochsprung was among the victims of the rampage that killed 20 first-graders and six educators at Sandy Hook. The 20-year-old gunman killed his mother before driving to the school, opening fire and then committing suicide as police arrived.
The museum building will include some type of memorial to Hochsprung and the other victims, Chiriatti said.
“These children were our children’s friends,” she said. “We haven’t decided how it will be done, except that it will be done in a cheerful way that celebrates childhood and education. Because that’s what this is about: creating a cheerful place, filled with learning and enjoyment.”
Architects and other professionals have agreed to volunteer for the project, which is tentatively planned for the campus of Fairfield Hills Hospital in Newtown.
And Chiriatti is getting help from other museums across the country.
Robert Dean, the executive director of a children’s museum in Grand Rapids, Mich., got involved the day of the shooting, after a 9-year-old son of his museum’s board president asked how they might help the kids in Newtown. He called a board meeting to brainstorm.
“We talked a letter-writing campaign and other things, but when we learned they were trying to build a children’s museum, I just thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if they could have the same thing we have?’” he said.
A dollar from each admission fee collected at that museum and two others in Grand Rapids last Saturday will be donated to the Everwonder project.
Dean contacted the Association of Children’s Museums, which launched a national effort. Museums are being asked to set aside one day this year and donate $1 from each admission that day to Everwonder. Chiriatti said she has already heard from four — the Children’s Museum of Brownsville, in Texas; the Seattle Children’s Museum; the Tucson Children’s Museum, in Arizona; and the Bucks County Children’s Museum, in Pennsylvania.
She said they are hoping to raise all they need without seeking any money from an $8.5 million fund set up by the United Way to support the community after the massacre.
“They need to identify where that money is really needed, what is most important,” she said. “If they need a counseling center, that should be where that money goes. It would be great to get some help, but we’re certainly not going to be actively seeking that funding if it’s needed somewhere else.”
Chiriatti said they hope to have their museum opened by the end of 2015.
Online: Everwonder Children’s Museum.