BRATTLEBORO -- When tourists happen to wander in to KidsPLAYce on Elliot Street Executive Director Elizabeth Johnson says she can see in their faces just how special the public children's discovery center is.
Johnson says she hears all the time from visitors to Brattleboro that the indoor playground and recreation center would be packed if it was in their hometown, and that there are simply very few opportunities for toddlers and young children to meet and play freely in a downtown space.
And on weekend days, when the weather is nasty outside, Kidsplayce can be busy, with 20 or 30 parents and children playing, creating and sharing time together.
But Johnson said lately there has been too much time between those tourist visits and busy weekends, and now she, and the few remaining board members, are trying to figure out what the future of KidsPLAYce might look like.
Johnson sent out a letter recently spelling out just how challenging it has been lately to keep the doors open and plan for the future.
"I am writing to you today because we at KidsPLAYce are in desperate need for people to get involved in this organization," Johnson wrote. "If we do not change how this organization is operating it will not last much longer."
KidsPLAYce was established in 1983 to give parents and their children a place to unwind and gather in a safe, clean indoor space.
It closed twice and reopened, and in 1995 KidsPLAYce opened in the basement under Hotel Pharmacy on Elliot Street, where it is today.
KidsPLAYce has indoor play structures, space to create art, and quiet corners where parents and children can read and relax.
Johnson said the small nonprofit, which survives with the help of countless volunteer hours, donations and good will, has always had a hard time staying afloat.
One of the big challenges facing KidsPLAYce is that Circus Smirkus, its major fundraising event of the year, is not bringing in the amount of money it once did.
KidsPLAYce needs major corporate sponsorship to help organize and run the summer circus, and last year a few major donors dropped out.
Johnson said KidsPLAYce actually lost money putting on the circus last year.
Like many non-profit organizations Johnson said KidsPLAYce is seeing fewer dollars come in from corporate sponsors and individual donors due to the economy.
Likewise there is less federal and state grants available and so Johnson says for an organization like KidsPLAYce that is run on a shoestring, the shortage of support makes it very difficult to keep the doors open.
Johnson has been director of KidsPLAYce for three years.
She took over following a period, she said, when the organization went through a challenging time where the facility was not properly cared for and admission was down.
Since then the rooms have been cleaned and updated.
"When I got here we listened to what the community was saying and we responded," she said. "For a while it worked, but sometimes you think about throwing in the towel."
When the rooms are filled with the children and families, Johnson says, it is clear that there is a need for an indoor discovery center in downtown Brattleboro.
Johnson says she and the board are trying to walk a fine line between letting the community know about the organization's challenges and not scaring off donors or volunteers who want to get involved.
She invites anyone to come down, hopefully when the rooms are filled with children, to see what KidsPLAYce looks like when it is being used to its full potential.
"Things are definitely tight right now but we are trying to remain positive," said Johnson. "We've had a lot of help from the community through the years, but we've also been fledgling for 15 years."
Johnson also said that stories she reads about children and parents in the area struggling with homelessness, unemployment, poverty, hunger and substance abuse convince her that there is a need for a safe and supportive environment for families to come to play and relax.
"KidsPLAYce is just as important for the parents as it is for their kids. We want to support parents," she said. "With all that goes on families need to feel like they are a part of a community. In a lot of ways Brattleboro needs us now more than ever, and I feel like we can't give up."
Along with its financial challenges Johnson said the organization is looking for volunteers to work and improve their space, and there are only two board members left after a recent resignation.
KidsPLAYce closes for the season in May and Johnson says if there are not big changes soon it might not reopen in the fall.
"I want people to know now how we are doing," she said. "I don't want to wait for a tragedy and then hear from people who say they did not know things were so dire here. I hope it doesn't get to that point."
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.