The Commerce Journal


June 10, 2014

The best little museum in Texas

COMMERCE — Sharline Freeman’s life has taken a lot of unexpected twists and turns that led her to the Northeast Texas Children’s Museum in 2009.

Along that winding road, several of Sharline’s “favorite things” helped guide her to that destination:

Her favorite number just has to be “3,” or at least something divisible by three.  After all, she has three kids, and each of them has three kids.  That adds up to nine grandkids.

Her favorite letter of the alphabet has to be “K,” and that’s for “kids”, of course.  Sharline’s entire life has been dedicated to rearing, leading and shaping the lives of children.

There’s little doubt that her favorite color is “green,” probably accented with some gold highlights. Sharline and the late father of her children graduated from Baylor University.  All three of their kids graduated from Baylor and, incidentally, all three married Baylor graduates.  Three grandsons were at Baylor this year, the oldest graduating on May 17.  A granddaughter will enter Baylor in the fall.  “It is a special place,” Sharline says.   (She tries to overlook the fact that husband Weldon is a Texas Tech grad.)

And her favorite place. There’s every indication it’s the Northeast Texas Children’s Museum in Commerce where she’s trying to build “the best little museum in Texas.”  

“I know that some of my friends think I spend way too much time there,” Sharline laughs.

When Sharline moved back to the Commerce area, the path took her to her late grandparents’ home in Pecan Gap.  It was built in 1921 by the Hockaday family whose daughter Ela started the Hockaday School of Dallas 100 years ago.  “Our barns were Mr. Hockaday’s turn-of-the-century gin,” she says.  She soon joined the staff at Texas A&M University-Commerce as a supervisor for student teachers.

Sharline was working for A&M-Commerce in 2009 when she had a conversation with Alton Biggs during Sunday school at the Commerce First Baptist Church

“He asked me if I would go to the Commerce Children’s Museum and ‘keep the doors open’ until they found a replacement for their director who had resigned,” she remembers. “My first reaction was, ‘Why in the world would I want to do that?’  I was supervising teachers for A&M-Commerce, and that was a much easier job.

“I just started dropping by and found myself becoming more and more involved each day,” she says “I saw so much potential in what the museum could be, and I was impressed by what the people in Commerce had done to support it.”

“Sharline applied for the job while Louise (Mrs. Biggs) and I were in Egypt,” recalls Biggs a naturalist and noted biology textbook author.  “It was such a great surprise to read her application.  I’m pleased to have been the board president when we chose her as our new executive director.”  

Sharline immediately brought the museum stability that has evolved into continuity.  During its first seven years, five different people provided varying degrees of leadership in trying to move the museum from a dream to a firmly established reality. Wyman Williams, a Commerce car dealer for more than four decades and now a fundraiser at A&M-Commerce., credits David Caldwell, the museum’s first “real” director, with “keeping the dream alive.” Caldwell now serves as director of the county-wide Area Agency on Aging in Greenville.

The man whose “dream” was the impetus for launching the project was David Gibson, retired preacher of the Commerce Church of Christ.

The Commerce Rotary Club provided a shortcut to the start-up funding by allowing the museum project use of Rotary’s tax exempt status to attract contributions.

Today the museum serves almost 20,000 children annually.  They span a geographical area from Rockwall to Mt. Pleasant.

“One of our biggest accomplishments to date has been our ability to attract such a large number of families from outside of Commerce,” Sharline says, noting that only one in five of the children and adults who utilize the museum come from Commerce.  “Our focus is on children eight and under, but they often bring older brothers or sisters along with them,” she adds.

“I think that all of our Commerce families take pride in the museum and the attraction it has become for families from throughout the area. There is no other similar museum within an 80-mile radius,” she adds.

So what is the magnet that’s drawing so many kids (along with their moms and dads, of course) to a converted cafeteria building on the A&M-Commerce campus?

In more recent times, increased funding has enabled the museum to add new activities, adventures and exhibits for the kids.    Sharline credits Williams with taking the lead in helping create a collection of diverse and challenging exhibits that pique the curiosity of children.  When the Dallas Children’s Museum merged with the Science Place and later became part of the new Perot Museum of Science and Nature, Williams convinced them to donate several significant exhibits to the Commerce Children’s Museum.  “They really weren’t going to use them in their new configuration,” Williams says.

The museum also received an important donation of exhibits when the Texoma Children’s Museum closed.

Other major exhibits have been developed, underwritten or upgraded by corporate partners  including Atmos Energy, Brookshire’s, Commerce Veterinary Clinic, Cypress Bank, Dr. Pepper Snapple, Duncan Insurance, the Hunt Regional Healthcare Foundation and Lone Star Eatery.   

“It’s important that we continue to provide kids with new outlets for their imagination and creative energy,” Sharline says.    

Popular hands-on activities include the Weird Science program (coordinated for the museum by Kathleen Hooten) where children rotate through three activity stations as they learn 13 TEKS (Texas Education for Knowledge and Skills) for fifth grade science.  The Dino Math program follows similar logistics, but it covers mathematical measurement for third graders because “measurement is where third graders across the state have the most trouble,” Sharline says.  Both programs benefit from the museum’s investment in equipment that many elementary schools either don’t have or the availability is very limited.  Healthy living also gets a major focus from the “Healthy Kids from A to Z” program that has been funded for several years by the Hunt Regional Healthcare Foundation.

Sharline often is amused by the imagination that kids exhibit in the museum.  Recently she was encouraging a little boy to take his groceries and put them back in the grocery store.  He had loaded them into the back of the airplane.  “He looked up at me and said, ‘But I’m going on a long trip!’”

“I’m amazed each day at the excitement of children as they come to the museum” Sharline reports.  “They often cry when they have to leave.”

Parents and grandparents say they see the museum as an unmatched learning experience.  One parent who agrees with that assessment is Kelley Ivey, wife of the new athletic director at A&M-Commerce.

After moving to Commerce from Lake Charles, La. a little more than a year ago, Mrs. Ivey began taking her sons – Jett is 5 and Ace is 3 – to the Healthy Kids from A to Z class. “The healthy kids class only lasts for eight weeks, but going to the museum has become our routine,” she says.  “We usually go one a week, sometimes twice.

Several important new projects are beginning to take shape on the horizon.  Perhaps the most expansive may be enclosing a large outside area north of the building to build on knowledge gained from the Roray Meyers Children’s Adventure Garden and the Dallas Arboretum. “We’re going to call this The Great Outdoors Discovery Area, and it will give us an entirely new dimension” Sharline reports.

“The museum wouldn’t be where it is today without Sharline’s ability to ‘friendraise’ and ‘fundraise,’” says Biggs. Learning how to build successful partnerships was one of the most important skills she learned working in Richardson, and Biggs says it is an attribute that has been a huge benefit to the Children’s Museum.

“I’ll say this,” says Williams, “From its launch in ’02, the chances of the museum being what it is today were none.  We’ve overcome obstacles that no one thought was possible.  Community support and a good bit of luck have made it successful.  The fact that it’s firm and stable is a real accomplishment and a tribute to the community.”

“My pragmatic goal is to finish each year in the black,” Sharline declares.  That hasn’t always been easy.  She says the only way that can happen is through “the generosity of businesses and individuals that see the value in what we are doing.”  A recent Silent Auction and Museum Market is the most successful fundraiser to date.  A repeat event is already on the calendar for April 27, 2015.

She says tremendous “behind-the-scenes support” is provided by an “amazing” board of directors.  The recent auction event was orchestrated by Jalinna Jones, wife of A&M-Commerce president Dan Jones, and Donna Tavener, an administrator at the university.  Becky Thompson of Commerce Veterinary Clinic is the current board president.

Sharline attests that whatever success she has enjoyed can be attributed to two people, her parents, the late Thel and Laurine Garrison.

“My daddy was a bank president in Cooper and later in Sulphur Springs, and he was a real ‘people person’,” she says.  “My mother was my teacher all through high school for one subject or another.  She always encouraged me, or you might even say she pushed me.  I know they would be so pleased to see what we’re doing at the museum to help kids have fun while they learn.”

And so are the more than 20,000 people who visit the Northeast Texas Children’s museum every year.


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