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Collette Michaud, founder and president of the Children's Museum of Sonoma County, show kids how to make bubbles at the mobile museum set up next to the Sonoma County Museum during family free day.

Kids' museum: Collette Michaud's dream

Imagine how Collette Michaud feels to at last touch the sturdy building that will make real the children's house of wonder that for a decade has existed only in her mind.

The 46-year-old mother of two blinked at tears as she thought back on how far her pursuit of an interactive museum for youngsters has come, and on all the believers who've joined the quest.

"It's just flourished because of the amazing people I've met," Michaud said at the fortuitously situated future home of the Children's Museum of Sonoma County.

The brick-and-wood structure stands on four grassy acres on West Steele Lane, next door to the Charles M. Schulz Museum and a skip and jump from the Schulz family's ice arena. The 5,400-square-foot building is owned by cartoonist Schulz' widow, Jeannie, who will lease it to the non-profit museum for close to nothing.

A good deal of work, money and creativity will be required to transform it into a place that beckons youngsters to come, play and explore the science of life. But Michaud, the museum's volunteer founder and CEO, is satisfied that the structure is solid and has great potential.

"Its bones are excellent for a children's museum," she said.

She scans the lawns and open space around the set-back church and sees ideal territory for youngsters to explore out-of-door museum features and simply "run and experience the Earth."

"It's a small children's museum, but the outdoor space makes up for that," she said.

The Children's Museum of Sonoma County (childrensmuseumnb.org) won't open to kids today or tomorrow. The lease is being finalized and, more importantly, Michaud and her board and supporters must bring in between about $1.5 and $2 million to pay for first-phase renovations to the building and for the construction of initial exhibits.

Museum advocates raised about $100,000 recently at the organization's first big public event, a luncheon for about 300. They're also seeking grants and gifts. They'll begin selling memberships to the museum in mid-2011.

The goal is that by mid- to late 2012 children will be welcomed into what will be an evolving, multi-phase museum. The grand opening can't come soon enough for Michaud, whose affection for places that allow kids to learn about science and their world through playful exploration goes way back.

A military brat as a kid, she lived for a time in Texas and from age 10 to 14 took art classes at the children's museum in Fort Worth. Before and after class, she and the other kids were free to roam. She remembers going again and again into the museum's replica of an early American log cabin, filled with the fascinating household artifacts of a bygone age.

"You look at picture in a book and it's just not the same," she said. The time she spent exploring the Texas museum's displays and experimenting with the exhibits, she said, "really did change my life."

As an adult, Michaud became an artist and a designer of educational computer games at firms founded by George Lucas. She and her husband Steve Purcell, a director and writer for Pixar Animation, settled in Petaluma in 1998 and started a family.

The seed of the Children's Museum of Sonoma County entered Michaud's head nearly a decade ago when she went for the first time to the Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausalito with the first of her two sons, Russell, now 11. They both were wild about the museum and it occurred to her that Sonoma County really should have one.

Could she make it happen? She was pondering the question when, in 2005, she attended a conference of the Association of Children's Museums at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis, the largest in the world. It gave a jolt.

"I met so many people who started their own museums," she recalled. "That's what sold me ... it could happen!"

She returned from Indiana and sent e-mails to a few friends and colleagues who are doers, asking if they'd join her quest to bring a children's museum to Sonoma County. Petaluma neighbor Bernice Callahan, who'd founded the California Parenting Institute, signed on. So did Lucas Arts co-worker Melanie Lamoureaux and science teacher Amanda Kirk.

Michaud said the quest has advanced as far as it has in five years because of them and many others who joined in, helped create a popular traveling "Museum On-the-Go" and boosted the search for a museum home.

She said a permanent Children's Museum of Sonoma County is becoming real because of people who include Herb Williams, president of the museum board; Schulz Museum Director Karen Johnson, advisor Michelle Gervais, members of the Junior League of Napa-Sonoma and the Santa Rosa West Rotary, museum program director Theresa Giacomino, artist Ned Kahn, North Bay Corp. and members of the firm's Ratto family.

As far as they've come, Michaud said, "We're very much at the beginning of the road." Still it's clear the pursuit of a first-rate kid's museum right next to the world-famous Schulz complex is gaining speed.

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