Hands on with history: Community celebrates King, carries on legacy

MAHOMET — Abbey Houser brought daughter, Caroline Houser, to the Museum of the Grand Prairie's Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration with the intent of having a "good conversation starter" with her 6-year-old.

"We talked last night before we came here about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and kindness and treating people equally," Houser said.

The Mahomet resident helped her daughter paint a rock with a butterfly with the word "happy" on it during the Monday event. Katie Snyder, the museum's education program specialist, said the inspirational rocks craft was a partnership with the CU Trauma and Resiliency Initiative supporting those who have been through "violent trauma" within the community.

The rocks had the initiative's contact information on the back, and on the front, children were to write messages of "hope" and "strength" and later disperse them in their community for people to discover.

"That's our way of carrying on Dr. King's work of supporting the community and supporting people," Snyder said. "We always want to have something where the kids take it beyond and think about someone else and ways that they can support people."

The hands-on activities are a favorite of Houser's.

"I find (it) really valuable," she said.

"Our kids particularly love doing things and they always have things to do, things to make, stuff to take home that they love to put in their rooms and show dad and all that stuff," Houser added. "The last one we were at was the Abe Lincoln one, and it's a good hands-on experience for kids to learn about historical things."

Mahomet's Krystal Riehl and her youngsters, including Ava (8), Hudson (5) and Christian (2) Riehl, also came for the family-friendly activities.

"They really just have a fun time exploring this place," she said. "They're learning about MLK in school so this is just kind of a way to supplement that learning."

Their favorite activity? The rock painting and the jar decorating.

But by far, Riehl enjoyed having those little learning moments with her children.

"We do more of the listening about what the culture of this era was like," she said. "You can get a lot just by reading little things and hearing the screen that they have playing and just learning a lot about different times."

The shared bond, watching parents encounter history with their children, was also a favorite moment of Snyder's.

"I like to see the parents sharing the books with their children," she said.

"I saw some older kids come in and they just sat down and started reading the books," Snyder added. "To me, that touches my heart to see people just wanting to read and wanting to read about history."

Volunteer Jamie Auteberry of Longview said the interesting part of assisting with the museum's celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. is also learning about local civil rights leaders here in Champaign County.

"Some of the public schools don't do specific local (leaders)," he said. "It's more or less national stuff that they talk about. It gives someone an idea of what was going on here in the 1950s and '60s."

Well, that and assisting "10 of 'em at a time," he joked, "so, it's hopping from one to another."

Jokes aside, the not-so-ancient history is a point Snyder hopes visitors took to heart.

"This is not long-ago history," she said. "One mom came up to me and said they'd gone around and done the scavenger hunt and she had previously known some things but she learned about some other things and she could share them with her kids."

"To me, that touches my heart," Snyder added.

For Snyder, the event should leave people walking away with an understanding of the history of civil rights in Champaign County.

"As they walk through the museum and learn about the different local people that were activists, I want them to know that it's not just Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks — these are the two names people often know — I want them to know it could be anybody," she said. "It could be you, it could be me, and it should be you and it should be me and it should be every child in here and what you can do to make a difference. I want them to use Martin Luther King as an inspiration for what they can do to help their community to further his work. That's the big idea."

Snyder said more than 100 people attended the celebration of the civil rights leader. Visitors also got a glance at the upcoming renovation to the Discovery Room.

"We're super excited about it," she said. "A lot of the old favorites are going to be coming back just in an updated, more hands-on, more accessible kind of way."

Renovation work was made in part by former museum volunteer Frieda Anderson Mumm, who passed away and "left some money to the museum that she wanted to be used," Snyder said.

"She was so dedicated to education," said Barbara Oehlschlaeger-Garvey, museum and education department director.

The renovation is one Snyder is elated to see.

"I have a 30-year-old and a 26-year-old and I believe we played down there," she said. "It's time to update a little."

"You'll see your favorites from the cabin, from the wigwam," Snyder added. "We're just updating those favorites."

Having such a space to learn is priceless to the Champaign County community.

"The whole basement exhibit they have here is a great learning tool," Houser said. "Just to do the back-in-the-day kitchen they have down there and they (the children) start asking questions and it's like, 'Well, this is what they used to have to do.' I think that is the most valuable aspect I find."

Riehl couldn't agree more.

"I appreciate that they have so many diverse ways for these kids to learn," she said.

"They always have something that's really interesting and crafty so the kids are learning even though they don't realize they're learning," Riehl added. "And it's very close," she said while laughing.

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