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For the love of kids

A retired couple who moved to Medford from New Jersey to be near their grandchildren have poured countless hours into expanding Kid Time! Discovery Experience, more than doubling its preschool space and increasing its enrollment in less than a year.

Jim and Celeste Hammell say their love of children and desire to contribute to their new city has fueled their work at the children's museum and activity center at Sixth Street and Riverside Avenue in Medford. Jim, a mechanical engineer, and Celeste, a teacher of secondary and special education, helped plan and construct the new preschool, which moved from an upstairs alcove to the spacious downstairs at the former J.C. Penney building.

Kid Time! coordinators say the larger preschool could move the facility closer to financial stability after struggling last year to increase funding or face closure.

Kid Time! opened in 2005 in a former civic building on Ross Lane with a handful of exhibits, such as a grocery store, theater, play area and a water table.

In 2011, it moved to its present home at 106 N. Central Ave., which is next door to the Southern Oregon Historical Society's research library. A preschool to help increase attendance and raise revenue was high on the list of the board's goals.

Realizing the upstairs space was too small to gain approval as an accredited preschool, the Hammells and museum volunteers set out to transform a much larger downstairs area into a full-time school.

On a recent morning, after stopping to admire two preschoolers' crafted "reindeer food," the Hammells brimmed with excitement about their newfound passion.

Celeste, who was hired as preschool director after hundreds of volunteer hours, said she never imagined being part of such a facility.

"Our children set up lives on the West Coast, so we found ourselves moving here but never anticipating getting involved in something like this," she said.

"We started to get involved and I got really excited when I realized the potential here. When I decided to help, I went home and, since Jim is very talented in woodworking, I decided to ask for ... a little help."

"She asked if I wanted to make a few stools," Jim says with a laugh. He built countless tiny chairs, learning stations, little tables and other attractions for the space and is now focused on rebuilding a large grocery store addition.

Within weeks, Timber Products donated and delivered a load of wood.

"They showed up with a flatbed truck and 8,000 pounds of plywood in our driveway," Jim says.

While the couple says they're simply a small piece of a larger effort, museum supporter Anne Batzer credits the pair with moving things along and having vision for the preschool.

Spaces have been redesigned and expanded as donations trickled in.

"They've just been there every step of the way and we could not have done it without them," Batzer said.

When opening a full-time preschool required an outdoor play space, volunteers set to work, collecting donations and lobbying the city to allow sacrifice of six prime parking spaces.

Once space was dedicated, Batzer said, the Hammells helped design and outfit it with rubber tires, gravel, Tonka trucks and — another creation by Jim — a giant Flintstone car.

"They've given so much to KidTime that they're getting approached by other preschools asking how they have done this and that, and, 'Hey, will you build this stuff for us, too?' " Batzer said.

"They just burst with creativity. We've gotten several awards and it's all been because of Celeste. We feel very fortunate to have them on our side. I don't know many other couples who have given so much to a community, especially having just moved here."

"Celeste is an amazing gift to the children of our community," said museum Director Sunny Spicer. "She not only has the skills and knowledge to make a tremendous difference with these kids, but truly cares about them, too."

Celeste said she feels lucky just to be involved with the growing facility.

"We are just two of many people who are involved and we feel very lucky to be a part of it," she said.

"There are a lot of very dedicated and very talented people here, and there are even bigger cities that don't have a facility like Kid Time! Medford should be very proud of what's being created here."

For more about Kid Time! visit http://kid-time.snappages.com. 

Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. E-mail her at buffyp76@yahoo.com.

Jim and Celeste Hammell visit with preschoolers at Kid Time! Discovery Experience in Medford Wednesday. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch