HELENA — The last year of the pandemic has been difficult for ExplorationWorks, as it has been for many nonprofits and organizations. They have been able to make it to the other side and a return to normal services thanks to community support, federal and state funding and a whole lot of hard work and adaptability.
The science museum closed their doors to the public on Mar 16, 2020 following the announcement that schools would be closing due to the virus.
“At that time I thought it would be temporary,” said Executive Director Kelly Posewitz. “I was like, ‘okay we're all going to go home for a month, maybe a little bit longer and then we’ll come back,’ but being closed for a month when we are supposed to be getting ready for summer camps was scary.”
Being closed to the public meant they lost one of their main sources of income.
Posewitz quickly applied for a roughly $75,000 Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan to make sure her staff was taken care of.
“That first PPP loan was just such a relief, I think that was the first night I got a full night’s sleep,” said Posewitz. “That was huge. We knew we could get through, nobody would have to be laid off. We had a good three months of payroll.”
After that, she applied to every COVID grant they might qualify for.
ExplorationWorks has received $227,000 in COVID-19 relief grants through the state of Montana and CARES Act funding in the past year. While that might seem like a hefty sum, and it was certainly welcomed, it only equated to around a third of their operating costs. State COVID relief grants also have strict guidelines on what that money could be used on.
The science center was able to hold summer camps which brought in significant revenue, and many members continued to pay their membership fees even though they couldn’t use the benefits. Patrons of the organization wanted to see them succeed and be there once the pandemic is over.
As August rolled around, it became clear the virus wasn’t going anywhere and ExplorationWorks would need to find ways to make it through the winter.
When school started back up that fall, St. Peter’s Health reached out to see if they could help with caring for the children of hospital frontline staff that needed to be at the hospital.
“Never did we think we were going to be a child care facility, that just wasn’t our thing” Posewitz said. “So here we are after going through this crazy summer camp experience. I came to the staff and asked what they thought about completely shifting what we do and try something totally different.”
ExplorationWorks made it work though. They applied for and received a $152,000 School-Aged Child Care Coronavirus Relief Grant, adapted their facility and brought on additional child care staff.
“It changed up how we did everything but it saved us. It saved us financially, it saved us emotionally and allowed us to continue our mission,” explained Posewitz.
Making that radical change has allowed ExplorationWorks to get to the point now where they are opening their doors once again, not as a child care organization, but as an educational museum.
On Saturday, April 17, ExplorationWorks will be opening their doors to the public with brand new COVID friendly exhibits. Pre-registration is required as they have limited daily admission capacity for health and safety and will be regularly cleaning between visiting groups.
Education Director Sara Feilzer had made a Youtube series of experiments parents could do with their kids when the state locked down.
She told MTN, although she had a lot of fun doing the videos, she’s thrilled to be returning to the education museum's original mission and seeing kids back in the building to have fun with science.
“This is why we do this, this is why we’re here so those kids can have those ‘Oh wow!’ moments That they’re not going to get anywhere else,” said Feilzer. “It’s been this really emotional ride in getting these kids back in and seeing how they flourish.”
Posewitz said this beginning of a return to normalcy was only possible because her staff were so dedicated and committed the past year.
“Had I lost one staff member we couldn’t have done any of this,” Posewitz explained. “I feel like we can do anything, we can take on anything… We’ve done it all and gotten through every single hurdle.”
ExplorationWorks says there have certainly been a few hiccups the past few weeks while getting ready to reopen for the public, but compared to the last 13 months it’s nothing to fret about.
More information about ExplorationWorks, including Summer Camp opportunities, can be found on their website.