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Opening Doors to All Families: Our Experience With Museums for All

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Editor’s Note: This blog is part of a series highlighting the Museums for All program, a cooperative initiative between IMLS and the Association of Children’s Museums to offer a signature access program that encourages families of all backgrounds to visit museums regularly and build lifelong museum habits. Any museum can participate. To register your institution, click here!

By Jennifer Wilson

Children’s Museum of Denver at Marsico Campus

“Really? We can come whenever the Museum is open? I can’t believe it!”

A little over a year ago, these remarkable words were not commonplace at the Children’s Museum of Denver at Marsico Campus. They are just one example of the responses we received from guests—many of them experiencing the museum for the first time—as we stepped into uncharted territory with the launch of our SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) Access Initiative.

Driven by an institutional commitment to open our doors to our community, we designed this new program to increase access for families participating in the SNAP, the federal food assistance program for low-income residents. Ours is one of numerous similar efforts popping up across the country at children’s museums participating in Museums for All, a cooperative initiative between the Association of Children’s Museums and IMLS.

(Photo Courtesy of the Children’s Museum of Denver at Marsico Campus: The Children’s Museum of Denver at Marsico Campus serves the metro-Denver community as a learning institution for young children and their caregivers.)

So, how did we come to be part of Museums for All? The decision grew out of rich conversations about the opportunities to reach more families. Recognizing the benefits of the high-quality informal learning experiences we offer and the barriers our admission fees pose for families with low incomes, our leadership team and Board of Directors offered their full support for an alternate pricing structure to better serve our community.

In the process of developing the SNAP Access Initiative, we tapped into the experiences of colleagues including Boston Children’s Museum and EdVenture. They had already implemented programs for guests with Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards—the cards commonly used for income-qualified benefits such as SNAP, Women with Infant Children (WIC) and Medicaid. Their insights and data informed our promotional efforts, goals and partnerships.

Finally, on January 2, 2015, we announced the SNAP Access Initiative with the goal of serving at least 3,500 SNAP participants in the pilot year. By simply showing their EBT card at check-in, families participating in SNAP would now be able to access the Museum for $1 per person, for up to 10 people per visit, for an unlimited number of visits.

We spread the word far and wide, using our Facebook page and issuing a press release. Denver Human Services, the Colorado Refugee Services Program and community-based organizations providing direct services helped disseminate program information to families participating in SNAP.

What happened then blew us away. In just over two months, we surpassed our goal of 3,500. By the close of the pilot year, the SNAP Access Initiative served nearly 17,100 guests! Frontline staff shared stories of wide-eyed children coming into the museum for the first time, of parents being amazed by the learning experiences we offer, and of families expressing deep gratitude for being welcomed—not just on a particular free day or night, but any time.

We are thrilled at the tremendous responses the program has received because of its growth over the course of 2016. We are honored to serve our community in this way and look forward to welcoming even more families, on their own terms, through the SNAP Access Initiative. And we hope other museums will be inspired to join us.

Jennifer Wilson is Manager of Foundation Relations at the Children’s Museum of Denver at Marsico Campus, where she has the privilege of overseeing the SNAP Access Initiative. She can be reached at jenniferw@cmdenver.org.

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