By Caroline Fossi
A chance encounter in the school cafeteria set the stage for Nichole Myles’ future career path.
The local children’s museum leader recalls that day in sixth grade in her Midwestern hometown: She had arrived early at elementary school with her mom, the school nurse. With time to kill, Nichole wandered into the cafeteria, where morning band practice was underway.
There, she came across band director Chuck Comella conducting a “ragtag” group of budding musicians. The music may have been mediocre, but Chuck’s passion and enthusiasm were contagious. At one point, the director jumped up on the cafeteria table to energize his students.
“I need to be part of this,” thought Nichole, then a shy tomboy who enjoyed competitive softball and swimming.
Other than piano lessons, which she “hated with a fiery passion,” she had little exposure to the arts.
Nonetheless, she joined the school band as a saxophone player, an experience that fostered a lifelong love of music and learning. After college, she became a youth band director and later took her experience as an educator into the museum world.
Because of music and the support of her music teachers, “I got to do things I never would have gotten to do,” says Nichole, now 43 and executive director of the Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry.
Opened in 2003, the nonprofit attraction offers a variety of hands-on play areas, from an art center to a pirate ship, as well as educational programming both on- and off-site.
Since coming on board in 2015, Nichole’s own enthusiasm and energy have spurred a period of change and growth for the museum.
For starters, CML joined Museums for All, a nationwide initiative that allows undersourced families (those receiving food assistance) to visit member museums for reduced admission. At the Children’s Museum, qualified families pay $1 for one-day admission for up to six people or $9.50 for an annual family membership. Regular admission is $10 to $12 per person, while regular family memberships cost $95.
Charleston County residents can also visit the museum for free by checking out one of 36 CML passes from local library branches. The passes offer unlimited admission for up to six people in the same household for one week. They’ve become so popular that there’s usually a waiting list.
Under Nichole’s leadership, CML has also beefed up its outreach programs, such as bringing science, technology, engineering, arts, math and technology activities to local Head Start classrooms.
“We want to make sure everyone in the community is able to get access to us,” Nichole says.
She’s quick to credit her staff and volunteers for keeping the museum’s momentum rolling.
“I have a terrific team,” she says. “They love serving children and families.”
The team effort is paying off. Over the past four years, museum attendance has shot up 44 percent, from 90,000 to 130,000 visitors a year.
To support this growth, and the wear and tear it brings, the museum building is going through its own evolution.
Housed in a historic train shed, the structure at 25 Ann St. recently underwent a $550,000 remodeling project. Work included bathroom and ceiling upgrades, new heating and cooling systems, and the removal of a shed behind the museum. The result, Nichole says, is a “brighter, cleaner” space.
A second phase of renovations will involve revamping all of the museum’s exhibit rooms and its backyard area. Plans include an indoor-outdoor play pavilion; activities inspired by Charleston’s port industry; an earth and space area; an early childhood “maker space” featuring 21st-century technology like 3D printers; a studio paying homage to Charleston’s Spoleto arts festival; and a “don’t touch the floor” exhibit, challenging kids to use props to traverse the room without touching the faux lava below. The $5.6 million renovation project is still in the fundraising stage, but Nichole hopes work can get underway in the next 12 to 18 months.
Going forward, the museum will continue its primary mission of learning through play — offering activities and programs to help kids bolster their skills, gain confidence and explore their potential. Perhaps they’ll even find their future calling, as Nichole did that day back in grade school.
“I am perpetually intrigued by how we learn,” she says. “You don’t know where that spark is going to come from.”
“Your Way is Enough”
In honor of Mother’s Day on May 12, we asked Nichole, a mother of three, to share her thoughts on parenting and motherhood.
I’m trying to raise my children to be unapologetically themselves and to give more than they take. I want them to be kind and to contribute to the world in a positive way — but it needs to be THEIR way. … My girls are young adults now, and I can truly say I am amazed at their capacity to carve their own path. People talk a lot about gen “Z,” but I immediately think of how self-possessed and powerful these young women are. … We’re in good hands. For my son, the best gift I can give him is making sure I don’t stifle him and that he is given every chance to be the funny, curious, energetic and fully capable young man he is. Whatever he ultimately chooses to do, using his gifts for good is the lesson I want him to learn.
To the rest of the working moms out there — especially the single, working moms — just keep getting up every day. You are enough. Your best is enough. Your way is enough. It can be especially hard to feel that when you seem to be surrounded by those living a different life than you are.
I’d also say to all the moms: “Come see us at CML. Come as you are. I’m a mom, too. We have our good days and bad days, but we love our children every day and you are always welcome here.”
Finally, I’d say to all of us: “We have to stop judging other moms. Parenting is hard enough and whether we are working or at home, married or single, solo or surrounded by family and friends, we need to give and get so much more empathy than I see. Motherhood is one of the most rewarding but challenging things anyone can take on, and you probably don’t know that family’s story.” So I challenge each of us: The next time you’re in the grocery store and see a child running down the aisles, or getting your seat kicked by a little one on the bus, or you witness a full meltdown in the middle of the museum — that you smile, lend a hand if you can, and resist the urge to do anything other than view that parent as the warrior they are.
Upcoming Children’s Museum events:
- May 12: CML Celebrates Mother’s Day – Moms get in free from noon-5 p.m.
- May 27: Normally closed Mondays, the museum will be open from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. on Memorial Day.
- May 29-Aug. 16: CML summer camps
- June 16: CML Celebrates Father’s Day – Dads get in free from noon-5 p.m.
Learn more: explorecml.org