Big ideas

Big ideas

Three Virginia clubs combine to create magic in a children’s library space.

Story By Julie Saetre • Photos by Katherine Sparks

In 2017, when staff at the James City County Library in Williamsburg, Virginia, launched a monthly large-scale STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) program for children, the response was immediate and enthusiastic.

That didn’t surprise Sandy Towers, then the library’s youth services director. 

“There were no free places where kids and their families could go and experience these kinds of learning activities,” Towers, now the library’s assistant director, says. “We realized that there was nothing in our community that was addressing that need.”

The library, located in a less-populated area of the city, was underused, despite its bright, spacious 7,500-square-foot children’s area. So when STEAM Saturdays became an instant hit, staff saw an opportunity.

 

 

“That’s when we thought, ‘Maybe we can create this kind of learning every day, seven days a week,’” Towers says. 

James City County owns the library and agreed to fund the basics needed for a remodel of the children’s space: lights, carpeting, etc. But Betsy Fowler, the library’s director, envisioned and designed a space filled with a blend of interactive STEAM exhibits integrated alongside corresponding book collections. Who better to answer the call than Kiwanians?

“The Kiwanis groups and friends did what we call the magic,” Towers says, “which is all of the exciting exhibits that the kids enjoy.”

The library foundation’s major-gifts chairperson is also a member of the Williamsburg Kiwanis Club. He shared information about the project with the club, and fellow member Rolf Kramer immediately volunteered to chair a committee to raise funds. He reached out to the Toano and Colonial Capital Kiwanis clubs, and for the first time, the three collaborated on a project.

Each club set a fundraising goal in accordance with its size; together, they raised US$112,000 for what would become the Kiwanis Kids Idea Studio. It celebrated its grand opening in June 2021 — much to the delight of the 2,000 children who visited that first day alone.

 

 

The transformed space now features hands-on exhibits that combine learning with fun, created specifically for the library after Towers and Fowler toured multiple children’s museums to glean ideas. The 12-foot-tall Awesome Air Tubes use air-propelled scarves to help kids understand cause and effect. A giant Lite-Brite-type display allows young visitors to create designs out of colorful backlit Lucite pegs.

Other exhibits include a large vertical LEGO® board, a magnetic gear wall and a kid-size kitchen, fully stocked market and a veterinary office complete with X-rays of real animals. 

“We were hoping to create a space where the kids would want to come back again and again and again,” Towers says. 

By any measure, they succeeded. The Kiwanis Kids Idea Studio saw 4,000 children visit weekly during the busy months of June, July and August this year. And circulation of children’s materials has increased 31%.

“Let me tell you,” says Towers, “it’s a happy place.”


This story originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of Kiwanis magaine.

Microgrants fund beds, bookmarks and blooms

Microgrants fund beds, bookmarks and blooms

From January through March, the Kiwanis Children’s Fund helped smaller clubs fund big ideas.

By Erin Chandler

In the first three months of 2024, the Kiwanis Children’s Fund again awarded microgrants to clubs making a big difference with fewer members — giving away books, collecting supplies for kids in foster care, promoting inclusive outdoor play and more. Below, you can read about three projects that take an innovative approach to service in each of the Kiwanis cause areas: health and nutrition, education and literacy, and youth leadership development. 

Health and nutrition 

Sleep in Heavenly Peace
Members of the new Kiwanis Club of Wentzville, Missouri, U.S., know that a good night of sleep is essential for the health and development of a growing child. That’s why this club and the Kiwanis clubs of Lake St. Louis and Troy are partnering with Sleep in Heavenly Peace, which builds single bunk beds for children who don’t have beds to sleep in. The club has already participated in volunteer events to help construct beds. A Children’s Fund microgrant will help members purchase mattresses and bedding sets to accompany the newly built beds for 10 local children. 

Education and literacy 

Kiwanis Kids Day
When the Kiwanis Club of Willmar’s first Kiwanis Kids Day — held in celebration of the Minnesota, U.S., club’s 100th anniversary in 2023 — drew over 800 attendees and resulted in five new active members, the club decided to make it an annual event. In addition to food, entertainment and crafts, this year’s Kiwanis Kids Day will feature a service project in conjunction with United Way of West Central Minnesota. A Children’s Fund grant will pay for supplies kids need to make bookmarks using pressed, dried flowers. These bookmarks will go into hundreds of bags of “tools” that United Way gives out at preschool Early Childhood Screenings with the goal of engaging young learners. Each child who makes a bookmark will receive a free book to take home — so the project promotes literacy both for the children who receive the bookmarks and the children who make them. 

Youth leadership development 

P.E.A.C.E. (Positive Environment for Allowing Change and Engagement) Garden
The Kiwanis Club of May Pen, Clarendon, Jamaica, will use funds from a Kiwanis Children’s Fund microgrant to help establish the first of what members hope will be a number of “P.E.A.C.E. Gardens” at local primary schools. The project aims to address the increased violence in schools by creating an enclosed garden space — complete with seating, plants and flowers — that will serve as a tranquil setting for fun and reflection. P.E.A.C.E. Gardens are designed for mediation, peer counseling, mentorship and programs that promote positive values. The first garden at Toll Gate Primary and Infant School will be built and maintained by the club and the school’s K-Kids and Builders Club. May Pen Kiwanians hope students will internalize the garden’s lessons about managing their emotions and resolving conflicts.   

How you can help 

To learn more about Kiwanis Children’s Fund microgrants, visit kiwanis.org/microgrant-program

If you want to amplify your impact to reach children around the world through the Kiwanis causes of health and nutrition, education and literacy, and youth leadership development, you can make a gift to the Children’s Fund or learn how your club can apply for a grant to help kids in your community today. 

Helping kids learn STEM skills

Helping kids learn STEM skills

From science fairs to university collaborations, the Kiwanis family facilitates STEM education and career development. 

By Julie Saetre

STEM programs are crucial to the Kiwanis cause of education and literacy. That’s because science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, are increasingly crucial in society. In the U.S. alone, STEM jobs are projected to grow 10.8% from 2022 to 2032, according to a 2023 report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In that same period, non-STEM job growth is projected to be only 2.3%.  

Kiwanis and Key Clubs around the world are answering the call. Use these projects for inspiration when you brainstorm with fellow club members about supplementing STEM efforts — and STEAM efforts, which incorporate the arts — in your community. (Need help with funding? The Kiwanis Childrens Fund offers club grants and microgrants.) 

STEAM fair in California, U.S.
The Kiwanis Club of Diamond Bar Young Professionals in California, U.S., partnered with Diamond Bar High School’s Team Sprocket robotics team for their inaugural STEAM Fair in September 2023. Their goal: Encourage elementary and middle school children to become passionate about STEAM studies and pursue future careers in STEAM fields. 

The Kiwanians stocked the school amphitheater with STEAM-related activities, including book giveaways, bookmark crafts, face painting and ZTAG gaming, which uses a wearable electronic device to promote physical and mental exercise centered around movement and communication. Team Sprocket showcased its award-winning projects, and the high school’s Printed Works student-run business demonstrated robots, drones, 3D printing, laser cutting and T-shirt printing. 

The event also included STEAM career and university speakers, who offered insight on STEAM fields and applying for post-high school STEAM majors.

ElevateEd: STEM in Nepal
With a series of code camps and robotics workshops, the Key Club of Kathmandu in Nepal is bringing a practical approach to STEM education into Nepal’s secondary schools. Led by Key Club members and volunteers with expertise in STEM fields, the workshops help students of all backgrounds apply classroom concepts to hands-on projects. In addition to developing vital skills in scientific fields, participants learn teamwork and how to present their projects in exhibitions.  

STEM support in Idaho, U.S.
In January 2024, the Kiwanis Club of Pocatello, Idaho, U.S., added to its ongoing support of Idaho State University’s STEM education efforts. The US$3,000 donation to the university’s physics department helps fund science presentations and activities for students from kindergarten through high school. 

Each year, the department sponsors over 100 science-education events at Idaho libraries, schools, museums and other area locations. Participants learn to code, model, build catapults and water rockets, and more. Pocatello club members volunteer hundreds of service hours to help make these events successful. 

Don Wyckoff, a club member and past president, personally donated US$1,100 to purchase materials for the Haunted Science Laboratory event sponsored by the physics department and the Kiwanis club in October. The lab includes a Van DeGraaf static electricity generator, lasers and interactive science activities. 

Engineering partnership in Virginia, U.S.
The John B. Cary Elementary School in Richmond, Virginia, U.S., serves children in one of the state’s most educationally underperforming school districts. As many as 90% of its students qualify for free or reduced lunches, and at one point the school was unaccredited. So the Kiwanis Club of Richmond decided to partner with them. Through this ongoing, years-long effort, Cary has gained accreditation and is now recognized as one of the school system’s best performing schools. 

Among the many programs the Kiwanis club has implemented is a collaboration with the engineering department of Virginia Commonwealth University to emphasize the importance of STEM/STEAM education. In 2019, a US$10,000 grant from the Kiwanis club funded the Kiwanis Distance Learning Lab, which is filled with computers and audio/video equipment to facilitate Zoom meetings between Cary students and VCU engineering professors, students and staff.  

As part of the Distance Learning Lab launch, VCU and the Kiwanis club implemented the Engineering in Vision program, which brings university professors and staff to Cary to conduct STEM activities with students. Engineering in Vision reaches an average of 40 students each session, with approximately 16 sessions per academic year.  

Members of the VCU Engineering team also attend a variety of events at Cary each year, participating in Kiwanis activities such as the annual STEM Night and Career Day. Many parents sign up to stay connected with VCU Engineering, and some of their children maintain relationships with VCU long after elementary school. VCU also encourages school classes to come to the VCU campus — only three miles away — to visit the College of Engineering, exposing students to state-of-the-art engineering innovations.