The Wonder Workshop has become a staple for Manhattan’s youth since it opened the doors to its children’s museum in 1994.
Following the passing of its founder, Richard Pitts, last year, the workshop has hired a new executive director, Suzanne Reese, to continue its mission.
Reese has worked with youth for many years, including around five years of involvement with the Wonder Workshop. Reese said she wants to stay true to the Wonder Workshop’s vision of hands on, student-led learning, while expanding programs to more children in the community.
“The vision is really to develop a lifelong love of learning while also being mindful of the creative potential of all youth,” Reese said.
Reese grew up north of Topeka and received a degree from K-State. She moved around before returning to Manhattan and working at K-State in academic advising. She has two children, now teenagers, and was searching for after school activities for them when she found Wonder Workshop.
She liked the hands on nature of the programming and its focus on the humanities and cultural diversity. She also met Pitts and knew he would be a positive influence on her children.
“I loved the smaller, more intimate feel, and I wanted my kids to be around Richard,” she said.
Reese also started working with the organization professionally, coordinating interns and volunteers from K-State and sitting on its board of directors.
As she takes on the role of executive director, Reese said she is grateful for the time she was able to spend with Pitts to better understand what the Wonder Workshop is all about.
“I am fortunate to have spent a lot of time with him,” she said. “ I feel like I’m going to have this Richard voice in my head.”
Reese said she knows it is impossible to step into Pitts’ shoes, but she wants to stay true to his vision while also expanding what the Wonder Workshop does. She said she has gotten to know Pitts’ wife, Cindy, as well and is thankful to have her support as she moves forward.
“It’s the biggest honor I can think of career wise,” she said. “It’s intimidating because he is a legend.”
Cindy said Reese will continue the legacy of accessible and equitable educational programming and will develop relationships with youth and families in the community as Pitts did.
“I can’t wait to see what the future brings to Wonder Workshop,” Cindy said. “She definitely has the passion my husband had.”
Reese said programs like those at the Wonder Workshop, where youth can learn in an environment that is less structured than a school classroom, can help broaden the idea of what “intelligence” looks like and give them more confidence.
“Just because you’re not a good test taker doesn’t mean you’re not smart or creative,” she said.
Reese’s friend and former co-worker Stephanie Bannister said Reese has a passion for making Manhattan welcoming for all children.
“Suzanne has taught me...each child has a unique interest and drive and that standard youth sports or clubs might not be the best for for them,” Bannister said.
The museum is slow reopening programs as the coronavirus pandemic continues, including starting up Discovery Days again, which offers activities on days when USD 383 doesn’t have classes. In the future, Reese said she hopes to expand the workshop’s programming for teens, including adding some that center on digital skills. She also would like to someday move into a new, larger space to make it easier to serve more youth.
Cindy said Reese is an excellent listener and will pay attention to what youth in Manhattan want to learn.
“She’s going to listen to what kids would like to see Wonder Workshop develop, and develop them with the kids and the community,” she said.