WonderSpace expands options in area with one of Indiana’s highest rates of childhood poverty

by Shari Finnell, editor/writer, Not-for-profit News

After Stephanie Freemyer and her family returned to her hometown of Marion, Ind., several years ago, she was struck by the lack of indoor opportunities for children to engage in stimulating play. Her two young children, ages 5 and 2 at the time, often complained of having “nothing to do.”

“When we were in North Carolina and Pasadena (Calif.), our kids were outside all the time,” Freemyer said. “Then coming here, it was cold, raining, or snowing eight months out of the year. It really impacted our kids.”

Grant County, where Marion is located, is familiar with these types of comparisons when it comes to opportunities for children. For years, it has had the distinction of having one of the highest rates of child poverty in Indiana — as high as 31 percent in 2018 and 22.7 percent in 2019, according to Indiana Kids Count data. That compares to a national childhood poverty rate of 14.4 percent in 2019.

And, as research continuously reveals, childhood poverty can lead to other challenges, including poor academic outcomes and an elevated risk of behavioral, social, and health challenges. In Grant County, 2018 average math and reading proficiency scores lagged behind state averages — 36 percent for math and 40 percent for reading, compared to the state’s averages of 46 percent and 49 percent, respectively.

These types of statistics, along with the lack of indoor play opportunities, were on Freemyer’s mind when she launched WonderSpace as a nonprofit in 2019 with no previous experience in establishing an organization. WonderSpace now includes a mobile play experience of four distinct areas designed to increase health and wellness among young people through physical, exploratory, imaginative, and cognitive play.

Since it doesn’t have a permanent location, WonderSpace welcomes visitors to free one-day or two-day pop-up mobile play days held in schools, churches, and businesses that donate their space. In its first year, more than 600 children and family members attended WonderSpace pop-up events. Last year, it welcomed more than 5,000 individuals to the mobile play event, which features the interactive stations Cardboard City, Imagination Playground, Snug Play, and Higher Flyers. The stations all contain loose parts that encourage exploration, engineering, and imagination.

Freemyer, who also serves as the children’s ministry director for College Wesleyan Church in Marion, noted that many Grant County families aren’t able to drive for an hour to reach destinations like the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis or the Science Center in Fort Wayne. The realization of those restrictions motivated her to move forward with her idea to create a children’s experience in Grant County.

In 2018, Angela Leffler, an associate professor in education at Indiana Wesleyan University, and Freemyer attended a 2018 Hatch-a-thon run by Ministry Incubators, which helps people launch ministry-focused ideas. As part of the competition, they won $500, which they dedicated to securing a business name.

The project continued to evolve after they hosted a community fundraiser to pay for $11,000 worth of play equipment. Sponsorships and donations followed to help fund additional play materials, supplies, and a 26-foot trailer to transport blocks, cardboard elements, and other loose play materials.

Meeting community needs

Tara Griffin, executive assistant at WonderSpace and a former teacher, said it was important to host WonderSpace as a free event to ensure access for children from all backgrounds. She also stressed the importance of families playing with their children, which may not come naturally for some of them.

“It is family directed,” Griffin said. “It’s not a place where parents drop off their kids and come back in two hours. They stay and engage with them. That’s what makes it so special. Families need to be provided those opportunities.”

WonderSpace also has been beneficial because it encourages socialization among young children who haven’t had opportunities to play with other children during COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing, Griffin pointed out.

The mobile play experience also is designed to meet the needs of children who may need a space separate from the larger areas to comfortably play, Griffin said. WonderSpace has designated calm or quiet areas.

“We try to make it accessible everyone, including handicapped children, children with special needs, or anyone who might be inhibited from playing in a larger environment,” Griffin said. “We want to provide an area for all children to be able to play and engage.”

According to Shayona Funches, a long-time Grant County resident, consultant, and former board member for WonderSpace, the nonprofit is meeting numerous community needs. Funches, who has three children, said that the area has been in decline for decades. During that time, many businesses have closed, including bowling alleys and movie theaters, she said.

“We’re not like Fort Wayne or Indianapolis, where there are a lot of things to do,” Funches said. “At one time, there was always something going on here. That’s just not the case anymore.”

WonderSpace fills a void not only by providing children a stimulating play experience, but also by connecting people throughout the community.

Funches said that WonderSpace has been successful, partly because Freemyer invited community input from the start. She said that it is important for nonprofits to ask questions. “What does your community want? What are their hopes?,” Funches said. “You want to them to buy into whatever you’re doing because eventually you will need their support. It also was important for Stephanie to have a team of people who truly believed in the vision.”

Freemyer continues to receive reinforcement that WonderSpace is making an impact, but one special moment will always stay with her.

During the opening night, a mentor to several troubled youth who were exhibiting signs of play deprivation came over to Freemyer with her smartphone held out. She displayed a photo she had captured while the children were playing. The photo showed a boy’s joyful face. The mentor told Freemyer that it was the first time she had seen him smile.

She immediately recalled her son’s prayer during dinner the night before; he had prayed that there would be smiles at WonderSpace. “I still get choked up,” she said. “I knew we’d see smiles. I just didn’t know it would be so significant.”

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