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Meet the “Okies” Sewing Group: Creators of the Museum’s Most Authentic Pieces

Did you know one of the most unique things about the Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota is the abundance of “loose parts”? The money in the bank, the stones in the quarry, the seasonal pieces in the wind tunnel: these items make the Museum interactive and more immersive for the children. But by far the most impressive collection of items are the food and animal products in the Grow It Gallery. People ask all the time, “Where did you get these?” about a stuffed watermelon or the individual pieces of fabric cheese. And the answer is a simple one, which still surprises most people: we make them

Meet the Okies Sewing Group: Creators of the Museum's Most Authentic Pieces

Since the Museum’s founding in 2006, we have had a group of volunteers who sew or otherwise craft nearly every play item in the building. From the aforementioned food–from veggies to chickens–to the costumes on the Lauri Kuch Memorial Stage, every single piece is handmade. The volunteer group of mostly retired women spend hours each week creating new items and mending old ones. They come from a variety of backgrounds and experience levels, but they all have one thing in common: a love of creating for a good cause. 

The group, who meet every Monday when the Museum is closed to the public, has an official name, which reflects that common purpose: Okodakiciye (pronounced “o-ko-da-kee-chee-yay”), which is a Dakota word meaning “a gathering of people who help one another.” They’ll sometimes go by “Okies” for short, and think of themselves as a support group for the Museum. 

Sewing Group authentic local toys at the Children's Museum of Southern MinnesotaWe do so much, not just sewing; it’s so much fun,” one volunteer said. “We do the gingerbread houses for that event. Make the houses and prep the supplies, then we are there to run it. I love interacting with the kids like that. We even made holiday aprons to wear.” 

 

WHY HANDMADE?

Three members of the sewing group are also founding board members of the Museum: Jean Peterson, Karen Wahlstrom, and Pam Willard. The original motive of the Museum was “Found, Local, and Natural,” so they knew they didn’t want to fill it up with plastic toys. 

“Another thing that has always been important is community involvement, so by forming a group of volunteers to make the things we needed, that fulfilled that, too. Fabric pieces made some people nervous at first. People were worried kids would chew on things or ruin them, but they just don’t. They’re having too much fun.” 

The three started the group themselves with their own skills, but quickly started recruiting more people to help. 

“The secret,” Peterson says, “is to be the first ones to ask them to help out after they retire. Then they get hooked.” 

And it’s a lot of work to make so much by hand. The group is working on some new pieces for a new exhibit coming this spring. We don’t want to give anything away, but they had so many wings being cut out, several people were working on them.

It’s more than meets the eye, too, because things have to be kept clean. They make several sets. We will have a set of 12 carrots that are out but will have a set of 12 carrots that are in the laundry AND a set of 12 carrots that are in the shed waiting to be put out. It’s very labor intensive, but “our children and our families are worth it,” and we couldn’t do it without this group. 

The group sometimes makes items for the small gift shop in the lobby and has even done contract work for other museums. 

“This group is just amazing. I mean, in our wildest imagination, we never thought it would evolve to this. They are creative. They are talented. They are determined. They are consistent. They are enthusiastic. They just keep coming back. They just keep coming back.”

Sewing Group getting creative creating loose part toys at the Children's Museum in Mankato

HOW DO THEY COME UP WITH THEIR IDEAS? 

When the Museum has a new exhibit or new idea, they ask the Okies to create it for them, sometimes with specific direction, and sometimes with just a vague idea. Different people in the group will fulfill a different part of the creative process. Someone does the research; someone else will find the right resources; another will create the pattern; and then several people will work to create the final product. And these jobs shift from project to project. 

The group prides themselves on authenticity and realism, which is where the research comes in. The vegetables are the correct size and weight. They value texture in the fabrics they choose. The watermelons have washers in them to make them heavy, and they once sent a batch of chicks to another museum and the post office clerk thought they were mailing live chicks! 

The group has also taught workshops to other children’s museum staff and volunteers. With several former educators in the group, it was easy for them to lead. 

Members of the Sewing Group at the Children's Museum in Mankato

HOW DO PEOPLE GET INVOLVED? 

Most of the volunteers in the sewing group were brought in by someone else. Word of mouth is their greatest advertisement. One woman, Kathy Michaelson, worked in finance in one of the offices involved in the Museum’s early management. She was so impressed with the mission and work they were doing, she started driving down from Chaska to volunteer after her retirement. 

“I’ve stayed involved now, I think nine years, because I’ve met all these incredible women. It’s worth the drive, and it makes me constantly learn new things. Several years ago they asked for a three-foot worm that you could unzip to show the digestive system. I don’t even like worms, but I learned a lot about worms making that, including the fact that they have four hearts!” 

All of the hours the group gives–which is several hours per week per person–make up the majority of the Museum’s volunteer hours and account for so much of the creative work being done, freeing up staff to work interactively with the children that much more. They often donate the materials, too, but it’s not expected. 

WORDS OF PRAISE FROM OKODAKICIYE 

We asked some of the members of the group, “How did you get involved and what makes you stay?” These are some of their responses: 

“I’ve been here since the beginning and the friendship and sense of satisfaction keep me coming back each week.”
-Pam Willard

“I belong to a quilting group here in town and this is just a different kind of sewing. This is not just putting together little pieces of fabric to make a big piece of fabric; this is using your brain to try to figure out things. You know we make a lot of prototypes of things. I got assigned to make some dinosaur tails, so I just went home–you know, Pinterest is my friend–and I found out how to make some dinosaur tails! You just use a different side of your sewing brain. I love coming in here; people are so friendly. I like the history of the place, and I like the idea that even though I don’t have any grandchildren in the area, it’s nice to know that you’re doing something for the area children.”
-Kathy Bruss

“I saw an article in the paper about the group, and I’m retired, so I thought this is a good opportunity. I called and they said, ‘OK we’ll take your name,’ and I would say within a couple of hours, Jean Peterson–who is the head of the group–sent me an email about it. I love when I bring my granddaughters here to the Museum, and they ask, ‘Grandma, what did you do? What did you do?’”
Diann Boudreau 

I love the challenge of creating something new and different. I have done a variety of things over the years. I’m also an early childhood person, so I know how important early childhood and experiential education is for children. I love making this is as realistic as possible for them, so they have excellent opportunities to grow and develop.”
-Mary Behrens

Okies Sew Group getting creative creating loose part toys at the Children's Museum in MankatoThank you SO MUCH for all you do for the children who come to the Museum! Our regular volunteers include the following folks. If you’d like to join them, send an email to the Museum at info@cmsouthernmn.org

  • Mary Behrens 
  • Nancy Blethen 
  • Diann Boudreau 
  • Kathy Bruss 
  • Carol Burns 
  • Cornelia Eberhart 
  • Linda Ganske 
  • Susan Hirvela 
  • Lynn Klaber 
  • Lucy Lowry 
  • Kathleen Michaelson 
  • Cindy Olson 
  • Jean Peterson 
  • Sue Schwickert 
  • Karen Wahlstrom 
  • Bridget Weigt 
  • Pam Willard 
  • Patty Yahnke 

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