SEBRING - When the Children's Museum of the Highlands first opened its doors in what is now Linda's Bookstore, the museum did not have enough money to pay the second month's rent.
"The first two years were very tough," remembered founder and executive director Linda Crowder.
Opening a hands-on, interactive, educational museum for children had been the brainchild of the Sebring Community Redevelopment Agency, which thought it might be a good way to bring people to the downtown.
Crowder, who sat on the board, was a young mom and knew what a children's museum contained, so found herself raising from ground up not just a project in its infancy but promoting a new concept for the area.
For the first five years, the woman who many describe as a lifeblood of the popular children's destination, was not paid. When her board tried to get her to take a salary, she traded that offer with a day-off on Saturdays, when a paid employee could take her place.
Since those early days, the only museum to serve pre-school and elementary kids in the five counties of Highlands, Hardee, Okeechobee, DeSoto and Hendry, has come a long way.
It's survived economic downturns and cuts in funding, while consistently adding exhibits and novel ways to raise funds. An average of 22,000 people go through its doors a year, some of them third-generation visitors who came as little kids.
"We have a strong budget, a strong following...the infrastructure is in place, the financials are in place, the staff is in place," said the 57-year-old, while seated in her office and her second home for more than two decades.
On Sept. 6, Crowder is set to launch a new chapter in her life and so is the museum. It's her last day at the helm of the nonprofit institution.
"I feel that after 23 years, the museum is in a good place and it is time to step back and enjoy retirement with my husband and soon, my first grandchild," she said.
She's taking applications to find a replacement, and is excited at the prospect of having someone with a fresh vision propel forward the museum.
She's looking for someone, she said, who has the "heart" to understand what the museum means to the kids in the community.
"Everything else can be learned," she maintained.
Applications are being accepted. For more information, stop by the museum, at 219 N. Ridgewood Drive in downtown Sebring, to pick up a packet of information, or go to www.childrensmuseumhighlands.com..
Founded in 1990, the museum moved a few doors down when financial advisor with Heacock Financial, Craig Johnson, offered to let the museum take over the mortgage of the building when the old tenant left, Crowder said.
They couldn't move in without bathrooms, which they ended up getting after a donor, who was an absolute stranger, read about the need in the media and stepped forward to help.
The museum even inherited one of its long-standing exhibits by sheer accident. The blue airplane had previously been a kit plane the garbage company found in the trash one day, broken in various pieces. They called the museum to find out if they wanted it, Crowder remembered.
Whatever was left of the plane went on the museum floor, wrapped in tarp, until a volunteer who had a woodworking shop offered to put it all together - and attach some wings.
From volunteers to donors, the community has backed the museum and kept it going. "At different times of the life of the museum, people have stepped up," Crowder said.
Champion for Children Foundation Executive Director Kevin Roberts called Crowder's imminent departure a big loss.
"She's a wonderful child advocate; she'll be sorely missed," he said. He described her as a focused, detailed-oriented person who has shown "unbelievable perseverance and tenacity" to sustain and enhance the nonprofit group.
In 2006, Crowder received the Judge Clifton M. Kelly Champion for Children Award, which Roberts' foundation awards every year to someone who has championed child welfare.
"Over the last 15 years, hundreds have been nominated for the award but only 14 awards have been given out each year since 2000," he said. "She's one of the best child advocates in Highlands County. She's a dreamer and a do-er."
Longtime Children's Museum board member John Clark called Crowder "irreplaceable."
"Linda is the soul of the museum; she's literally the creator of the museum," he said. "She's made a lot of personal sacrifices for it. She was absolutely committed to the success of the museum."
He said Crowder had been trying to prepare the board of her retirement plans for years.
"Me, particularly, never wanted to believe that would happen," he said. "Sure enough it's here."
When Crowder says good-bye, she plans to be bidding adieu to Highlands County as well, and move to St. Petersburg with her husband, Craig.
For years, Crowder and her family have been preparing for her eventual retirement, and even her kids - who grew up in the museum - had to take time to digest the fact they may not be able to take their kids to "grandma's museum."
A big University of South Florida fan, the Crowders hope to catch some USF and Rays games, hit the beach and hang out with the first grand-baby, expected in June.
Over the years, Crowder has accumulated a treasure trove of memories.
What stays with her the most, though, are the smiles of the children, especially from migrant families who don't understand English but realize in short time they can play in a "fun place" without knowing the language.
"It's their reaction," that's priceless, she smiled.