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Discovery Place cuts admission to $1 for poor families

Looking to broaden its audience and target an underserved part of the community, Discovery Place plans to announce Monday a program offering low-cost admissions to needy families at its flagship science center uptown and satellite children’s museums.

Called “Welcome,” the program will reduce admission fees to $1 per person for families on public assistance who show an EBT (electronic benefit transfer) or WIC (Women, Infants and Children) card at the entry desk at Discovery Place, Charlotte Nature Museum, or the Discovery Place Kids satellite museums in Huntersville and Rockingham.

Full-price admission for adults costs up to $15 for adults and $12 for children at Discovery Place and $10 at the Discovery Place Kids museums.

Discovery Place President Catherine Wilson Horne said the idea has been under development for much of the year and stemmed from the realization that poor families were effectively barred by cost from the centers.

“It comes from a recognition that we have developed over the last year in examining our community and understanding who we have been serving and who we have not,” Horne said.

Kids want to move in

With the help of United Way, the museum identified organizations and agencies that serve low-income families – including the Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services, Loaves & Fishes, and Charlotte Bilingual Preschool – and is partnering with them to get the word out about the program, which goes into effect Monday.

“ ‘Welcome’ will enable our children and their parents to explore science and nature as a family in a playful setting,” Claire Tate, the board chair for Charlotte Bilingual Preschool, said in a statement. “On the rare occasions we’ve had the funds to make a field trip to Discovery Place or Charlotte Nature Museum, our children asked to live there.

“Now we can encourage our families to make the trip on their own and often,” she said.

It is difficult to predict how many people would take advantage of the program, said Horne, who came to Discovery Place in January from the Columbia children’s museum EdVenture. Horne said a similar program in place at the Columbia museum started out slowly then gained momentum.

“We found that it started as a small trickle – a few hundred the first month – and it grew over time,” she said. “It’s a word-of-mouth endeavor for families.”

National museum trend

Setting low-cost fees for needy families is a trend among museums aimed at the young, Horne said. A “Museums for All” initiative by the Association of Children’s Museums and the Institute of Museum and Library Services encourages removing barriers keeping poor children away.

Horne said that nearly 80,000 households in Mecklenburg County were served by the EBT program. Statewide, about 264,000 people are served by the WIC supplemental nutrition program.

Horne said a middle school student from a low-income family recently told a staff member about coming to Discovery Place on a school trip and becoming intrigued by the museum’s hands-on architecture exhibit. “He dreams of being an architect now and carries around a little notebook and sketches buildings,” she said.

The move comes as a new economic mobility task force prepares to begin work in Charlotte next month. The group will spend most of 2015 studying why the city and Mecklenburg County rank dead last among the country’s 50 largest cities when it comes to providing opportunities for the poor to lift themselves out of poverty.

“When Charlotte looks at increasing social mobilities, we have to look at future generations,” Horne said. “We’re one of the places children can discover something they aspire to do.”

Discovery Place continues to host about 100,000 students from Mecklenburg and surrounding school systems annually. It also sends out trunk shows and exhibitions to schools, mostly in the Carolinas, that request science programs. Some of the schools the museum has visited with its outreach program have been as far away as Atlanta, Tennessee and Virginia, Horne said.

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