What happens when a prolific author and a big-city attorney hook up? Good things for the Rogue Valley.

What happens when a prolific author and a big-city attorney hook up? Good things for the Rogue Valley.

ScienceWorks creators John and Sharon Javna met in 1983 while dancing. She was a newly licensed San Francisco attorney. He was writing his second book, "How to Jitterbug."

By 1988, John, now 63, was on his 19th book — "Uncle John's Bathroom Reader." It was a huge hit. But publishers turned cold when Javna tried to "write something more serious," he says.

"I wanted to write about what average folks could do to help protect the environment, but New York publishers wouldn't buy anything serious from me. They just expected me to turn out books about pop culture," he says.

So the self-starter decided to self-publish "50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth." The book sold about 5 million copies in 23 languages, and hit No. 1 on the national best-seller lists in 1990, he says.

"But that wasn't the best that happened that year," Javna says. "The best thing was that our son, Jesse, was born."

Sharon, now 58, who was then a public defender in Oakland, quit her job to stay at home with Jesse. Three years later their daughter, Sophie, was born.

"In 1995 Jesse was ready to start kindergarten, and we wanted him to go to a good public school. So we moved from Berkeley to Ashland," Sharon says.

"We loved the valley, but missed taking our kids to all the great interactive museums in the Bay Area. Neither of us had any experience with museums, but we decided to start a small science museum in the Ashland Middle School, where the older kids could have hands-on experiences like dissecting salmon, and elementary school children could come for free. We built hands-on exhibits and a lab for experiments, and even had a giant python."

They called it Ashland Middle School Science Museum — AMSSI for short (a takeoff on OMSI), John says.

The little museum was a success. Then, one day, Sharon decided it should become huge.

She'd looked at the old natural history museum building across the street, which was empty at the time, and decided the building needed to be saved as "a museum for the people of Jackson County," John says.

"I thought she had lost her mind," John says. "That building is 27,000 square feet, and our museum was only about 700 square feet. I couldn't see any way we could possibly create a museum that big. But she was determined."

The Javnas toured U.S. cities with great science museums, taking photos of the exhibits and talking to administrators. They met with partner Dave Bernard, owner of Darex, and with Dan Kranzler, a friend whose family had a foundation that purchased the building, John says.

And they divided up the responsibilities, Sharon says.

"Since I was an attorney, I took on the administrative duties," she says, adding that because John had been a toymaker prior to being an author, he became the head of exhibits.

"He's always said that museum exhibits are just giant toys, if they're done right," Sharon says.

Expert museum consultants told the Javnas it would cost $3 million to build the exhibits they wanted, but thanks to about 100 skilled volunteers, the job was done for $300,000, John says.

"We opened in December 2002. The museum just celebrated its 10th anniversary, and it's doing better than ever," he says.

ScienceWorks now serves a region stretching nearly 150 miles, from Mt. Shasta, Calif., to Roseburg and Cottage Grove. In 2012, ScienceWorks served more than 53,000 visitors, nearly 10,000 of whom were schoolchildren and their teachers, Sharon says.

"We're really proud of its success, and the people who have helped make it one of the best small science museums in America," Sharon says.

John says ScienceWorks was his "first experience seeing the power of community."

It was not his last.

Javna's dream of ending community hunger began in Ashland in January 2009 when neighborhood Food Project volunteers collected a few thousand pounds of food.

The success of the burgeoning grassroots program stems from 6,000 dedicated volunteers who fill, pick up and distribute the food collected in the projects' bright green bags, he says. The project has steadily picked up volunteers and press, spreading across Jackson County — and even to other states.

Roseburg's Food Project picked up about 8,000 pounds. And in Chico, Calif., more than 5,000 pounds of food were collected, he says. New Food Projects are beginning in Cottage Grove, Auburn, Ala., and West Palm Beach, Fla., Javna says.

Locally, the Food Project took a quantum leap in December when volunteers across the county collected enough green bags to tally 64,000 pounds of food. The single day's breakdown included nearly 30,000 pounds from Medford, Jacksonville and Central Point, 24,500 from Ashland, 3,500 from Talent, more than 4,000 from Eagle Point and more than 2,500 from Phoenix, he says.

"The Food Project has been the most satisfying work experience of my life. I've gotten a chance to collaborate with thousands of my neighbors in Jackson County, working together to build a more caring community. What could possibly be better than that?"

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or sspecht@mailtribune.com.