After more than a decade of planning and fundraising, Executive Director Christy Naquin (BS ’95) and other Colonels help bring the Bayou Country Children’s Museum to life.
Mid-afternoon on a winter Wednesday, Thibodaux’s new Bayou Country Children’s Museum sits quiet.
“It’s nap time,” Executive Director Christy Naquin (BS ’95) explains. Around 2 o’clock each afternoon, the daily lull gives the museum’s employees and volunteers a chance to restore order after the morning rush. Once school lets out, the building will once again fill with the noise of discovery and play. Children will scramble onto a full-size John Deere sugar cane harvester and clear imaginary fields; some will hop aboard a shrimp trawler named “Miss Clotille,” while others fish off a replica oil derrick outfitted with a delightfully speedy slide.
“Occasionally, I’ll go into the play space and just listen,” Naquin says. “I love hearing the laughter and the shrieks. Children just love it. They have so much fun here. And as for parents, I think we exceeded everyone’s expectations.”
Conceived by former Thibodaux physician Dr. Ethel Marie Mendenhall (BA ’73, MEd ’80), the $3.6 million children’s museum is a dream 15 years in the making and has been more successful than anticipated. But the uniquely south Louisiana museum might have remained just a wishful sketch if not for the efforts of Nicholls marketing graduate Naquin and a number of other university employees, students and supporters who helped bring the project to life.
“It’s amazing to finally see the exhibits that I’d only imagined for such a long time,” Naquin says. “I was so tired of going place to place armed with the artist’s drawings, trying to build support for the project. Now people can see the real thing, fully built with children having a good time — it’s very fulfilling.”
Naquin manages the museum’s day-to-day operations as well as oversees the ongoing fundraising initiatives. For years, without realizing it, she had been preparing to take on such a role.
The Thibodaux native known for her spunky personality discovered a natural affinity for marketing while taking business classes at Nicholls. “I knew for sure I didn’t want to major in finance or accounting,” Naquin recalls. “Marketing is something that was much better suited to me, and it led me right where I was meant to be.”
Upon graduation, Naquin landed a tourism dream job — marketing director at Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie — but was unexpectedly let go when tourism plummeted post- Hurricane Katrina. Never one to remain idle and wanting to continue developing her marketing skills, she took on marketing internships at the yet-to-be-built Bayou Country Children’s Museum and Thibodaux Regional Medical Center while also volunteering with the United Way of South Louisiana.
Although Naquin’s career path quickly rebounded — she accepted a full-time job with SEACOR Marine and then a marketing position at Nicholls — she continued her volunteer work with the museum.
Meanwhile, having settled on a location, finalized its business plan and secured a loan, the museum board — led by then President Kathleen Gros — was ready to hire an executive director. The board immediately turned to Naquin.
Her experience in tourism marketing, event planning and nonprofit work gave her the experience necessary to help steer the museum into the future. Naquin felt conflicted about leaving her job at Nicholls, but she couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
“It was something I could really see happening, and it was something I felt in my heart. I really wanted to be a part of it,” Naquin says.
Now, five years later, as children explore the 34 exhibits steeped in Cajun culture, the Bayou Country Children’s Museum definitely feels like a dream realized. Since opening in September, the 12,700-square-foot building has seen more than 12,000 visitors from 25 states.
“It’s a true blessing, as far as I am concerned,” says Gros, a Nicholls supporter and widow of former Nicholls College of Business Administration Dean Ridley Gros. “So often we tackle projects and one thing or another makes us stop. It’s wonderful to see it come to completion.”
A large globe at the entrance to the main exhibit space traces the paths of eight different cultures that settled south Louisiana: French, Spanish, German, African, Irish and Native American. The idea of rooting the museum in south Louisiana culture and industry never wavered, Naquin says.
“Everything is unique and recognizable,” she says. “How many times have you seen one of these sugar cane harvesters on the side of the road? But it’s not until you’re standing right next to it that you realize how enormous it really is. We recognized that we had something special to build on here.”
Themed “A Bayou Runs Through It,” the museum’s exhibits blend seamlessly together, offering lessons about local industry, culture, health and even safety. Children can operate a replica offshore supply vessel or race pirogues down a model bayou outfitted with locks and floodgates. They can also shop at a child-size Rouses grocery store and prepare their purchases at a homey Cajun restaurant. There’s a Mardi Gras exhibit with beads to throw to a Carnival crowd, a pit to dig for buried treasure and a stage with plenty of costumes for dress up.
The museum’s only guided exhibit, “Safetyville,” is a small replica home that is staffed by a local law enforcement officer. Designed to teach children fire and severe weather safety, the living room rumbles and shakes, which cues WWL-TV Chief Meteorologist Carl Arredondo to appear on the TV and offer safety tips. In a makeshift bedroom, smoke pours from under the door, promoting a lesson on how to escape a fire.
“The first time I went in the museum to work, I overheard a little girl say to her mom, ‘This is the best place I have ever been.’ To go in there and hear the excitement of children — you know we’ve created something special,” Gros says.
Although the doors have only been open a short time, there are already plans to expand the museum and add new exhibits, including one dedicated to the Thibodaux Volunteer Fire Department. To bring phase two of the dream to reality, Naquin remains focused on raising money for the museum; securing sponsorships; and planning popular events such as Play it Forward Casino Night and Night at the Boo-seum, the beloved annual trick-or-treating event.
“Planning for the future of the museum is so much fun, especially now that I get to do it to all that pitterpattering and giggling out there,” Naquin says with a smile.
Nicholls lends a helping hand
Many Nicholls employees, students and alumni had a hand in bringing the Bayou Country Children’s Museum to life. Board members, past and present, have included Kathleen Gros, wife of late College of Business Administration Dean Ridley Gros; Dr. Chuck Viosca (MBA ’85), College of Business assistant dean for graduate programs and special projects; Dr. Leslie Jones (BS ’91, MEd ’92), College of Education dean; Becky Hulbert, wife of former Nicholls President Stephen Hulbert; and Deborah “Raz” Raziano (BA ’74), director emeritus of alumni affairs. Graduate Cheri White D’Albor (BA ’07) designed the logo and original marketing materials for the museum as a class project for Trisha Zeringue Rabalais (AS ’94), assistant professor of art. Dr. Ken Chadwick (BS ’84, MBA ’88), head of the Department of Management, Marketing and Business Administration, helped develop the business plan that secured the museum its loan.
— Written by Nikki Buskey, marketing/communications specialist
This article originally appeared in the spring 2014 issue of The Colonel alumni magazine. Click here to read the entire issue.