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Nonprofits still serving the community despite shutdown

The Museum of Science and Technology

New York's statewide shutdown is presenting a unique challenge for nonprofits such as museums and zoos. Not only do these organizations rely on foot-traffic to help pay their bills and staff, but a large part of their budgets come from donations which may be impacted now that many people are out of work. However, that's not stopping many nonprofits in central and northern New York.

The Museum of Science and Technology (MOST) in Syracuse normally gets about 18,000 visitors from field trips alone between March and June. While that's not the case this year, MOST President Lauren Kochian said the museum is not closed.

"As far as traffic goes, we’re not going to see the admissions, we’re not going to see IMAX ticket sales, but we are seeing a tremendous amount of traffic on our webpage, people opening up our emails and clicking on those links, and people using our social media tools," Kochian said. "We see this as still providing this service for the community, it just has to look a lot different right now."

The MOST, which prides itself on hands-on learning, is sharing online instructions for experiments that kids can try at home like engineering a marble run with household appliances or creating a mini planetarium. And the MOST has opened up a so-called science hotline where students can email their homework and other science questions to the MOST's teams of educators. Kochian says it took some ingenuity, but her staff was able to find a way to continue fulfilling their mission to the community.

"That's sort of where we landed on that programming we have now: how do we become the resource that supports what’s going on in the classroom, whether that classroom is in school or through distance learning," Kochian said. 

The Thompson Park Zoo in Watertown is also educating online now, going live on Facebook with its zookeepers and animals and airing prerecorded educational features. Although zoo Director Lawrence Sorel said the response to their online outreach has been quite positive, the temporary closure could not come at a worse time for the Thompson Park Zoo. Staff had just begun implementing a five-year strategic plan meant to help the facility reach financial stability.

Credit New York State Zoo at Thompson Park
The animals at the Thompson Park Zoo in Watertown have been enjoying produce and other food donations from the community that were given to help the facility defray its operating costs while closed to the public.

But Sorel said this shutdown may be giving them a fresh opportunity to add to their audience.

"I think it has opened up people's eyes a little bit, inspiring people to think about what we have - particularly here in the North Country - and how we want to make sure we have it for generations to come," Sorel said. 

And there may be evidence that it's working. When Sorel put out a request for donations to help feed the zoo's animals, he said they got so many food donations that it filled their freezers and they had to ask people to hold off for a few weeks. Though as this New York pause continues, the impact on the zoo's budget, like with other nonprofits, will grow.

Credit Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute
Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute
The Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute has been engaging with its audience online during the New York shutdown, like posting craft activities for families to try at home.

"Now more than ever support of nonprofit organizations is essential," said Anna D'Ambrosio, president of the Munson-Williams Proctor Arts Institute, a museum and school of art in Utica.

Staff at Munson Williams are sharing the museum's content online, posting craft activities for families, and doing a live art and yoga class on Facebook. D'Ambrosio says it's important to support nonprofits like Munson Williams because these organizations are not just important staples of the community, they are also uniquely capable of bringing the community together, which is sorely needed right now.

"It is certainly disappointing to not be able to have people have the authentic encounters for the art that is so important to us, but I think art more than ever now is something that brings us comfort, reflection, and unites all of us because that idea of self-expression in everything that we do unites us as human beings and unites us globally," D'Ambrosio said. 

Payne Horning is a reporter and producer, primarily focusing on the city of Oswego and Oswego County. He has a passion for covering local politics and how it impacts the lives of everyday citizens. Originally from Iowa, Horning moved to Muncie, Indiana to study journalism, telecommunications and political science at Ball State University. While there, he worked as a reporter and substitute host at Indiana Public Radio. He also covered the 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly for the statewide Indiana Public Broadcasting network.