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Free membership for Gold Star families

Gold Star fun

Mic Simpson, 5, plays with the Circuit Circus at the Imagine That! Breakfast in Olympia in March. Mic is the son of Staff Sgt. Michael H. Simpson and Krista Simpson. Simpson was killed in Afghanistan in 2013. Photo credit: Shanna Paxton Photography

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The Hands On Children's Museum has begun offering free membership and other benefits to Gold Star families, those who've lost a loved one who was on active duty in the military.

Hands On member Krista Simpson inspired the Gold Star program. The museum is a favorite hangout for Michael (called Mic), 5, and Gabriel, 3, and it took on new importance after Simpson's husband, Staff Sgt. Michael Simpson, was killed in Afghanistan in 2013.

"There's no way you can come into a museum like that and watch your children smile and laugh and giggle and have joy and not feel good," Krista Simpson says. "Of course, it's bittersweet because I think, ‘I wish my husband could be here.' "

Shortly before Michael Simpson was deployed, the family celebrated Gabriel's first birthday at the museum. Simpson was deployed a few months later and died when Gabriel was 16 months old.

When she went through her husband's emails after his death, Krista Simpson found one he'd sent to the museum after that party, asking about making a donation. She followed up, and the family bought one of the salmon plaques that hang on the wall in the museum's entry hall.

It's inscribed: "In memory of Daddy, Staff Sgt. Michael Simpson. Love, Mic and Gabe."

The family visited the museum to watch the plaque be installed.

"We had a really sweet ceremony," says museum communications manager Jillian Henze. "It was a great way to honor him."

While there, Krista spoke with museum staff and asked if there was a program for Gold Star families. The idea took off, and executive director Patty Belmonte proposed it at a meeting of the Northwest Association of Youth Museums. All of the association's museums are offering benefits to Gold Star families, and Simpson hopes the next step will be to take the program nationwide.

At the Hands On museum, benefits for Gold Star families include not only membership but also birthday parties, admission to parent support nights and Parents' Night Out events, where children play in the museum with staff supervision while parents get a few hours of free time.

"We were thinking of benefits that would be supportive of single parenting," Belmonte says.

"I am hoping that families that couldn't afford the children's museum or that didn't think of it maybe will go and feel that support," Simpson says. "I hope that it will help the families that don't know how to take those steps forward."

The museum gives her lots of ideas for rainy-day activities with her kids, she says, and she plans to take advantage of the free parenting classes. But she sees broader benefits to the program.

"Gabriel was fifteen months old when my husband deployed," she says. "One day, after he started to walk and talk, he called the neighbor ‘Daddy' because he heard the neighbor kids call him that. He really didn't have a clue. It struck me: He has no idea what a daddy is."

At the museum, she says, he can learn about that. "He sees other families, and he sees how wonderful that is. I hope that as he gets older, he'll recognize how great that is, even though he can't remember it. His memory will just be our stories."

And she says that for older children, just knowing that the museum supports them and recognizes their families' sacrifice could have a powerful impact.

"For kids who are 10 or 12 who are walking into a museum and see that there's a Gold Star program, they see: ‘That's me. These people really care about the struggle that we go through every day and will go through forever.' "

She also hopes the program will help build awareness of what it means to be a Gold Star family. The name comes from star-shaped pins, an emblem created by Congress after World War II to recognize those who'd lost loved ones to war. These days, many people no longer know what the pins mean.

"Sometimes when I say, ‘We're a Gold Star family,' people say, ‘Oh, great,' because it sounds good, right?" she says.

Seeing the program listed in museum brochures and on a sign at the front desk will create an educational opportunity.

"If people don't know what it is, they will ask, and the people behind the counter will explain it to them," she says. "Someday, my kids will be able to just say, ‘We're a Gold Star family.' They'll never have to say, ‘My dad was killed serving his country,' or ‘My dad was killed in Afghanistan.'

"My kids usually say, ‘My daddy died a hero.'"

Hands On Children's Museum is at 414 Jefferson St. NE in downtown Olympia. For more information, call 360.956.0818.

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