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Lighthouse Point Woman Brings Boca Raton Museum to Life

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By Sarah Licht, Lighthouse Point News Reporter

Lighthouse Point Resident Ellyn Okrent has dedicated her career to helping children develop and thrive. She serves as CEO for both Florence Fuller Child Development Center (FFCDC) and the Boca Raton Children’s Museum. In the past five years since the FFCDC took over operations, the museum has been reinvigorated and transformed into a vibrant place for children to exercise their imaginations and play.

When you first enter through the white picket fence surrounding the Boca Raton Children’s Museum, you are greeted by the sight of children gleefully playing with water displays and riding tricycles on windy sidewalks around the Museum’s lawn. To get to the front door, you walk past a pretend campground where kids can sit in a canoe on a blue tarp to catch invisible fish, or circle around a make-believe campfire to roast imaginary marshmallows on sticks. Next to that, a pirate ship invites children to navigate the seven seas and a carriage reminiscent of Cinderella transports young girls to the midnight ball.

When entering the main building for the Museum — a quaint, historic white cottage — your eyes will gravitate to a giant Lite-Brite in the front room — dozens of colorful pegs are plugged into the board to form flowers and houses.

A little boy in a police officer uniform sits on the carpet, fiddling with play handcuffs, while another dressed as a firefighter plays with a toy truck. The boys found their costumes in the job-themed dress-up room where kids can try on pretend careers. A stack of blocks beckons future construction workers, while future veterinarians are drawn to a pet scale to weigh stuffed animals.

Situated across the hall from this career zone is a miniature grocery store where children can buy produce with fabric dollar bills and help each other bag their buys.

The museum is overflowing with a sense of wonder not commonly found in our technology-driven world. Watching children play with their hands and imaginations is a refreshing departure from the typical sight of children glued to smart phones and smart pads.

While at the museum, visitors can partake in numerous programs, such as knitting clubs, soccer practice, art lessons, book clubs, as well as camp programs offered in the summer. The museum also offers packages for birthday parties and private events for children and adults alike.

“It [the museum] is really one of Boca’s best-kept secrets,” said Okrent. “In a city with few activities for children and even less for toddlers and infants, the museum has been Boca’s crowned jewel for children’s entertainment and enrichment.”

First opened in 1979, the museum’s two major features — Singing Pines and The Cottage — have historical roots. Singing Pines is one of Boca Raton’s oldest wooden structures, initially built in 1913 as a rooming house for women during World War I. In 1979, the Junior League, a social service organization, brought the home to its current site specifically to turn it into a children’s museum. The Cottage was built later in 1935 and has since been renovated. The antique charm of both buildings can be seen from their white shutters to the orange wood that lines the floors.

For visitors who haven’t been to the museum recently, you will immediately notice that the overall quality — from the manicured lawn to the different toys and playthings available — has increased.

In 2014, the City of Boca Raton (which owns the property and maintains the grounds on which the museum sits) recruited the Florence Fuller Child Development Center (FFCDC) — and subsequently Okrent — to manage it. The previous operator had run out of funding and the museum was facing imminent closure when, in 2014, the FFCDC agreed to step in. At that time the Boca Raton City Council also committed $50,000 to FFCDC to operate the museum.

“The city came to us and said, ‘Will you take over the Children’s Museum? We believe in the mission and what this place does and how important it is to preserve for our children.’ Of course, we said sure,” said Okrent.

Since then Okrent and the FFCDC has worked hard to update the property and improve the museum’s programming. The museum now sees approximately 25,000 visitors a year.

“For stay-at-home moms the museum is a place for them to go to socialize with other mothers,” said Okrent, “My vision for the museum is to be a community gathering place where families can come together…to help foster that sense of community.”

A sense of community is vastly important, Okrent said. She is no stranger to ensuring the welfare of children and our communities. Okrent served as the Executive Vice President of Kids in Distress — an organization focused on the prevention and treatment of child abuse and neglect — for more than 27 years. She then became the Executive Director of the Milagro Center, a cultural arts center for disadvantaged children in Delray Beach. Now, Okrent is the tireless CEO of the FFCDC, which has two nationally accredited child development centers, in east and west Boca Raton. Those centers serve more than 850 children and 600 of their families annually.

The FFCDC specifically serves children who have grown up in circumstances that might limit development of their potential, compromise their health, impair their sense of self, or generally restrict their chances for successful lives.

With the exorbitant cost of childcare in Florida (on average $8,694 annually, or $725 a month — more than in-state college tuition — according to the Economic Policy Institute’s 2016 numbers), the FFCDC fills a critical need for affordable childcare for families tight on finances, especially those working in service-industry jobs.

As a professional in her field, Okrent has been acknowledged numerous times for her accomplishments. She received an award as one of the top 10 Nonprofit Business Women Leaders in the State of Florida by the Commonwealth Institute of South Florida; and was awarded a scholarship from the Harvard Business School Club of South Florida Foundation to attend the Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management program at Harvard.

Okrent said both the Boca Raton Children’s Museum and the FFCDC are always in need of volunteers. For those who are unable to volunteer, multiple fundraising events are held each year. To see a schedule of events, visit
ffcdc.org.

“We need people who believe in our mission and who want the best not only their children, but all children in our community,” said Okrent.

For more information on how you can help, visit both ffcdc.org/volunteer/ and cmboca.org/how-you-can-help/


For more Lighthouse Point  news and things to do in LHP area read Lighthouse Point magazine and search our website.

Author: LOCAL NEWS

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