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Junior Docent program enlists young teens to explain history

If you stop into the Niagara History Center in Lockport this summer, don't be surprised if a young person offers you a tour.

It could even be a very young person.

The Center, operated by the Niagara County Historical Society, is starting a Junior Docent program that will prepare youngsters age 13 to 18 to lead tours, as well as assist with the summer children's program and research artifacts and historical events.

Many of the current volunteers at the Center’s museum complex at 215 Niagara St., Lockport, are retired, and some take time from their volunteer schedules to travel. A few are farmers who are occupied with farm work during the growing season, said Ann Marie Linnabery, the History Center’s education coordinator.

"In the summertime, when we have more visitation, some people would like a personal tour, someone to go through the museum with them," said Linnabery. "We just don't have the staff to do that, so we thought it might be a good idea to train some teenagers to do tours of the museum for walk-in visitors.

"When there are no visitors, they can be doing research or other things around the museum, and when we have the children's programs they can assist with the activities."

The children's program is set up for four Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., starting July 11, and from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on school holidays. Those who attend are age 7 to 12.

"By the time they are 12, because a lot of the kids in the program are younger, they would rather help with the program than participate in the program," said Linnabery. "After that age they aren't really eligible to do the children's programs, so we thought if we picked them up at the age of 13, they could continue to participate, and instead of doing the activities they could assist with the activities."

Betsy Diachun, a volunteer at the Niagara County History Center, demonstrates a Stereoscope, one of the artifacts Junior Docents may learn about and explain to visitors. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

History Center administrators sent out information about the Junior Docent program through the schools and local libraries, and initial response was encouraging, Linnabery said.

The group of 15 successful applicants will be trained in four sessions in May and June on such topics as Native Americans, the pioneer and Erie Canal history of Niagara County, public speaking, how to engage visitors, working with children and doing historical research.

After the training sessions, the group will take a day-long bus tour of other local historic sites and museums, where they will meet and speak with staff and volunteers.

Each teenager will be given an official T-shirt to wear while working at the History Center and be required to complete a three-hour volunteer session weekly for 10 weeks.

At the end of the summer, those who complete the requirements will be given a certificate of achievement and a $200 stipend, which was made possible by a Yahoo! Community Benefit Grant, now called the Oath Community Benefit Fund for Lockport.

"In the future, that's probably not something we'd be able to offer, but we're hoping that the kids will come back in future years, and maybe we could pick up some more students in future years as well," said Linnabery.

"We are very proud to see this project come to life, "Paul Bonaro, vice president of data center operations at Oath, said in a statement. "Through the new Junior Docent program at the History Center of Niagara, the Historical Society is helping to educate and train the next generation of local leaders while providing new, important services for the community."

Civil war items in the collection of the Niagara History Center include canteens, photos and swords. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

While the History Center has had young volunteers in the past, Linnabery said, "It's been very informal, they haven't had a lot of training. They have usually helped with our summer children's program, but they have not led tours, done research or anything like that. So this program is going to be much more formal, much more focused."

The Niagara County Historical Society owns and operates the History Center at 215 Niagara St., which is housed in the Outwater Memorial Building. The 1863 brick home, which was built in 1863, includes a Victorian parlor, historic pantry, old toy room, Civil War room and rotating exhibits.

The Junior Docents will volunteer on the grounds of the Niagara History Center, which includes the Outwater Memorial Building, which was built in 1863. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Also on the grounds of the Outwater Memorial Building are the Washington Hunt Law Office, Pioneer and Transportation Building, the Barn, and the Kandt House. Two other building, the Erie Canal Discovery Center at 24 Church St. and the Col. William Bond/Jesse Hawley House at 143 Ontario St., are also part of the Niagara County Historical Society Museum organization.

When they aren't showing around walk-in visitors, Linnabery expects that the Junior Docents will be researching artifacts or historical events.

"We have some artifacts in the collection that are interesting, that we don't know too much about," she said, "so I might have them do some research on a particular artifact. Some of the activities that we do for the summer children's programs involve some research, so especially if they are going to be actually doing the activity, they would have to research the topic of the activity and the activity itself."

While these young digital natives are probably most comfortable searching online, they will get the experience of using paper documents, including primary sources, said Linnabery.

"There is a lot of research that can be done online, and this is a generation that probably doesn't use books very often," she said. "We can give them suggestions for some sites they can use, but we actually have a lot of materials here at the Historical Society, we have books, we have folders and files about different aspects of Niagara County history, and doing that sort of research might be new to some of them."

The toy room of the History Center contains antique toys and games, including animal figures, trucks and farm equipment, stuffed animals and a large rocking horse. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

The Junior Docents may also write articles for the Historical Society's newsletter, said Linnabery.

Linnabery is not aware of any other museums in the area that have junior docents. "I know some of them do use students for some of their other programs, but I'm not sure there are other museums that would use them to do tours," she said.


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