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Michael McHorney leads Eau Claire Children's Museum to "moments of magic"

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Children’s museum director plans for new site

Mike McHorney says children are the future, and therefore deserve “our time and respect.”

Mike McHorney says children are the future, and therefore deserve “our time and respect.”

© Madeline Fuerstenberg 2018

Mike McHorney says children are the future, and therefore deserve “our time and respect.”

© Madeline Fuerstenberg 2018

© Madeline Fuerstenberg 2018

Mike McHorney says children are the future, and therefore deserve “our time and respect.”

By Madeline Fuerstenberg

In a colorful building brimming with laughing children, Michael McHorney smiles at the prospect of witnessing another “moment of magic” at the Children’s Museum of Eau Claire. Having worked as the museum’s executive director for five years now, he said he’s witnessed quite a few.

“It’s really important to me, I think, that we continue to build this wonderful world that we live in,” McHorney said. “I feel like I have a calling, and that is, for me – personally, professionally – just to serve others, and not myself.”

From a young age, McHorney said, he was exposed to the spirit of giving by his parents. On Thanksgivings, he would participate in Meals on Wheels with his father on the streets of Eau Claire. McHorney said he watched his mother, a private school teacher, pick up extra work tutoring others in order to afford good educations for her own children.

McHorney graduated from the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire with a degree in kinesiology. Upon graduation, he said, he endeavored to work in a recreational setting with youth. Before coming to the CMEC, McHorney said he worked in the non-profit field, working various position at different Boys and Girls Clubs in the Eau Claire area, and across the country.

“Kids keep you youthful and young,” McHorney said with a laugh.

Now, McHorney said it is his responsibility to “oversee the entire operation of the museum.” In addition to this, McHorney also said, he works with the CMEC’s Board of Directors, handles financial oversight and management, coordinates fundraising and oversees various educational programs that the museum offers. He also said he likes to stress the importance of building a strong culture and sense of morale among CMEC employees.

In addition to McHorney’s daily responsibilities, he said he is also helping to facilitate the expansion of the CMEC. Plans to move the museum to Eau Claire’s Block 7 are underway, which, according to McHorney, will allow for the museum to expand its exhibits, increase membership, improve accessibility and increase community partnerships. Block 7 is situated at the corner of North Barstow and Wisconsin Streets.

“It is going to allow us to serve the needs of the community currently, but also in the future for many, many years,” McHorney said.

McHorney said the CMEC has been at its current location on Barstow Street address since its opening in 2004. Since then, the museum has received consistent community support, continuously growing and expanding in different phases. With over 81,000 people visiting last year, McHorney said, the museum has “maxed out” its use of space. McHorney said he hopes the new-and-improved CMEC will increase membership rates and encourage members to return more frequently.

As new father to a 16-month-old son, McHorney said he understands the value of having environments such as the museum available in the Eau Claire community.

“For me, play was really critical in my childhood,” McHorney said. “I can’t see that not being a part of my child’s life as well.”

McHorney further recalled his experiences as a child to stress the importance of imagination and “thinking differently” in order for young kids to be successful later in life.

“Growing up, it’s easy for me to remember which adults were most impactful and which ones weren’t, and what they did,” McHorney said. “Most kids don’t remember their most favorite assignment in school… but they remember the people that impacted them.”

McHorney said he believes it is his role to engage kids in ways different from simply being an authority figure. He said he wants children to view him as more of a mentor, as so many kids are often missing those “anchors” in their lives.

“Mike is a great leader,” said Paige Nankivil, another CMEC employee, who has been working with McHorney since 2014. “He’s a very kind and generous person.”

Over the years, McHorney said, he has never stopped learning from his experiences with the museum. The most important tool for learning promoted by the museum, according to McHorney: failure.

“We’re constantly learning… I think, if you’re not, you become somewhat-stagnant,” McHorney said. “Ultimately, that’s how we all grow. Nobody’s perfect, and we shouldn’t try to be.”

Lauren Yaeger, guest services manager at the CMEC and an employee of two years, described McHorney as being efficient and strategic.

“He’s very good at taking care of his employees, as well as the museum,” she said.

In a similar vein, Chris Acton, a museum manager of one year, said McHorney is very intelligent and decisive.

“He taught me how to work well with others,” Acton said.

In his free time, McHorney said, his main focus is spending time with his family. He also uses his spare time to volunteer, coach a local basketball team, try new things, travel and experience knew cultures. McHorney said his job can be stressful, but this is “inevitable” in today’s climate. According to him, it’s all about how the stress is managed.

With new developments for the museum underway, McHorney said, he currently has no future plans for his career trajectory. He said he is committed to the museum for the time being, as well as continuing to work with children.

“It’s been a great five years,” McHorney said.

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