By Steve Long, Children’s Museum of the East End
In the midst of every crisis lies great opportunity.” This adage aptly describes the Children’s Museum of the East End’s (CMEE) response to the pandemic’s unprecedented challenges. Located on the East End of Long Island in New York, the museum closed this spring to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. To ensure CMEE’s survival, we adapted, taking inspiration from the settlement house movement.
According to writer Jeffrey Scheuer, settlement houses are historically known for “institutionalized experimentation,” where decision-making is informed by an empirical assessment of their local community’s needs. Rather than superimpose a new element on their community, they function as glue bringing it together. Isn’t this a terrific description of a children’s museum?
While Long Island’s East End is widely known as “the Hamptons”—a summer retreat for the well-to-do—the museum’s community shares much in common with people served by today’s settlement houses. The year-round population has higher rates of poverty and substandard housing than the rest of Long Island, as well as a high immigrant population. Latinx students comprise over 50 percent of the population in East End school districts and a third of visitors to the children’s museum.
During the week following the museum’s March 2020 shutdown, staff and board focused on two primary questions: 1) How could the museum replace income lost due to the closure, which would total $750,000 by the time we reopened? 2) How could a “hands-on” museum continue to fulfill its mission “remotely”?
Faced with enormous economic volatility, we modeled a variety of budget contingencies to respond to the first question. But to answer the second question, we couldn’t determine what our stakeholders needed without asking them directly. So we developed an online survey in English and Spanish, which was emailed and texted to our outreach programming participants. Survey results revealed that the vast majority of respondents—more than 80 percent—had lost their jobs and were struggling to cope. Their overriding concerns were rent and food. CMEE launched several emergency initiatives to help families cope, including online support groups and programs. However, the museum’s most significant response has been a food pantry.
Almost every hamlet and village on the East End has its own food pantry. We initially anticipated guiding families to one in their specific area. However, we learned that in order to receive food, clients must prove residency in that hamlet or village; this requirement proved impossible for immigrant families already taking part in the museum’s outreach programming. Concerned about their naturalization applications, they did not want to provide contact information because they were afraid they would violate the “public charge” rule. Long an element of immigration law, tightening restrictions implemented in February 2020 widened the definition of what could be considered “public assistance,” which could be grounds for refusing citizenship. Despite the museum staff’s many attempts to allay these fears, the families made it clear they would go hungry before risking their immigration status.
If families were reluctant go to a food pantry, we needed to figure out how to bring the food pantry to them. With the help of a former museum trustee, the Bridgehampton Community Food Pantry agreed to offer curbside pickup of food for thirty families at the museum on March 31. Unfortunately, with skyrocketing demand and limited resources, that arrangement was short-lived. After failing to strike partnerships with any of the other food pantries, the museum decided to start its own “pop-up” food pantry in April. While a food pantry may seem to be outside the museum’s mission, if children are hungry, how can they play and learn?
Museum staff learned how to run a “socially-distant” food distribution center on the fly. Initially assuming we could rely on in-kind food donations, we quickly discovered that food pantries purchase the vast majority of food they distribute. We also underestimated the amount of staffing required to run it. Adding “food pantry manager” to our job descriptions, restaurants and other food pantries connected us with food service companies that began making weekly deliveries to the museum.
The biggest challenge was financial. Weekly food costs averaged $65 per family. Running a food pantry cost thousands of dollars each week out of a museum that was already losing $25,000 a week. The museum launched a “Food 2 Play” fundraising initiative. Major donors that had expressed little interest in simply subsidizing the museum’s lost revenue were far more eager to help with “Food 2 Play.” Asking donors to help the museum simply survive the pandemic was ineffective. We needed to be positioned as “first responders” helping vulnerable families through the crisis. Numerous corporations, philanthropists, and foundations began funding food banks and pantries. Leveraging a substantial portion of this support, CMEE raised more than $300,000 specifically for Food 2 Play and other COVID response initiatives in 2020.
Ordering and paying for the food was the first step; figuring out how to get it to families presented another set of hurdles. In addition to three paid staff committing a quarter of their time, almost two dozen volunteers unloaded, packaged, and arranged curbside food pickup every week.
While last spring’s school closures created havoc for families, it was a silver lining for the museum’s food pantry. Parents, eager for safe and meaningful activities to do with their children outside of the home, contacted the museum looking for ways to volunteer their time. In a few weeks—mainly through word of mouth— the museum had more prospective volunteers than it could safely accommodate.
The volunteer recruitment effort also reconnected the museum with more than a hundred former members. Like most children’s museums, families tend to “age out” of CMEE when their eldest child gets to be seven or eight years old. Over the years, the museum has developed an array of strategies, including community service projects, to keep these families engaged, with limited success. The pandemic changed that. According to one mom whose children volunteered, “The museum is giving older kids a greater sense of purpose.”
It’s not just teenagers who now see themselves differently in relation to the museum. Young children, like my six-year-old son, have been affected by their volunteer experience. When the museum was still closed to visitors, he pointed out that he used to play at the museum but now he helps families. During videoconference check-ins with his teacher or calls with grandparents, he would proudly describe his work at the food pantry.
In addition to teaching the value of giving back, the food pantry provides numerous learning opportunities for young children. Children as young as three or four help their parents count potatoes to go in a box or sort and separate pantry items such as rice, lentils, beans, and pasta. They also learned how to work collaboratively to make sure no family was skipped and every box had the right number of items.
Even though CMEE has reopened—at 20 percent capacity—we are still running our weekly food pantry for nearly eighty families each week. In total, the museum has provided food to 187 different families and a total of 804 people. In addition to reducing food insecurity, it’s promoted a sense of dignity and community. In contrast with many other food pantries, families feel no stigma. Prior to the pandemic, they came to play at the museum; now they also come for food.
In addition to food, CMEE has distributed art materials, offered free flu vaccines with Stony Brook Hospital, and provided bilingual information from Peconic Bay Medical Center about how to protect against COVID-19. Via the messaging service WhatsApp, families communicate with museum staff and each other, sharing recipes, artwork, and photographs. Food pantry recipients also volunteered their time at the food pantry.
While the museum started its food pantry to support its most vulnerable families, in fact, the museum itself was supported. Although we did cut expenses, support for our COVID response efforts meant we never had to lay off any staff. 2020 was one of the most successful fundraising years in the museum’s history. Grants and contributions more than made up for earned revenue we lost. For years, we have operated much like a settlement house, but it wasn’t until the pandemic that donors became fully aware of the range of educational, recreational, and social programs we provide for underserved children.
Will our food pantry operate after the pandemic? My sincerest hope is that it will no longer be needed. What we will continue is our “institutionalized experimentation” where we remain responsive to the needs of local families. By acting more like a settlement house than a traditional museum, we altered the East End’s perception of CMEE, moving it from a peripheral “nice to have” to the heart of the community.
Scheuer, Jeffrey. Legacy of Light: University Settlement’s First Century. University Settlement, 1985.
Steve Long has served as president of the Children’s Museum of the East End in Bridgehampton, New York, since 2008. Prior that, he was vice president of collections and education at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City.