In the Kids Zone

Parents pull together to create an indoor play space

By Drew Myron

Sixteen-month-old Anna Hilderbrand enjoys play time at Sherman Kids Zone. Her mother, Becky Brandenburg, helped create the space that brings children and families together to learn, play and socialize. Photo by Drew Myron

Becky Brandenburg had a big problem in need of a simple solution.

“I just wanted to get out of the house,” says the Wasco mother of two young, active children. “Last winter it was cold, and we had nowhere to go.”

Becky talked to other mothers and found they all shared a common concern: Cold winters, windy summers, limited preschools and day care, and a remote location leave local parents with cooped-up kids and few options for engagement.

Working toward a solution, the group of parents led by Becky created Sherman Kids Zone—an all-volunteer effort that provides a place for children ages 2 to 12 to learn and play, for families to meet and friendships to develop.

“We live in a rural area, with many families outside town or spread out with many miles between them,” says Jessica Richelderfer Wheeler, a founding member who has twin 10-year-old boys and serves as board secretary. “It was important to me to create a space in Sherman County where local families could get together in a place that’s safe for young kids to explore freely. It’s especially great for those kids who are too young for school, where they get a chance to play and socialize with their peers.”

Formation of Sherman Kids Zone began in April 2021. The group of mothers spent months establishing nonprofit status and securing grant funds for operations.

Mack Miller, left, and Jacob Hilderbrand adjust the sails of a pirate ship during play time. Photo by Drew Myron

Board members are Becky, chair; Katrina Burbank, vice chair; Brennah Miller, treasurer; Jessica, secretary; Becky White; and Whitney Weedman.

Organizers have overhauled a former classroom on the second floor of the Wasco School Events Center into a cheery and inviting hub for children.

Before opening last summer, the group painted, decorated, recruited volunteers, and solicited donations of toys and play equipment.

Numerous local folks stepped up to help. Colton McCullough built and donated a large wooden playhouse and “local” storefront cutouts. A party planner donated colorful carpet. Wonderworks Children’s Museum in The Dalles donated toys and furniture. Jessica painted a mural of wheat fields and mountains, and another of woodland animal silhouettes.

Sherman Kids Zone is open Mondays through Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Membership is free to families in Sherman, Wasco and Gilliam counties.

Firefighter Robert Anglin of North Sherman County Rural Fire Protection District shares a book during story hour at Sherman Kids Zone. Photo by Jessica Wheeler

After registering, users are provided a key code to access the room and agree to stay with children while using the space. There is no drop-off or unsupervised play.

Becky’s son, Jacob Hilderbrand, 4, has found a happy place among the colorful toys and numerous activities.

What’s his favorite?

“Trucks!” he says, racing from toy to toy. “Ships! Legos!”

This is just what the inventive mothers imagined.

“It’s a wide-open space full of toys, games and sensory activities, where they can spread out and let their imaginations go wild,” Jessica says. “My boys love playing with Legos and the wooden train sets. They also love to line up all the toys by size, from the largest pirate ship to the smallest toy tractor.”

Sherman Kids Zone relies on donations and grants. Contributors include Oregon Community Foundation, Sherman County Cultural Coalition and Sherman County Education Foundation, as well as individual donations.

Organizers hope to continue to operate as a no-cost play space.

Becky Brandenburg plays with her daughter, Anna. Photo by Drew Myron

While mothers created the solution, the Zone is now a community-wide effort, with local leaders stepping up for special events.

Sheriff’s Deputy Travis West and firefighter Robert Anglin have led Story Hour, followed by fire truck, patrol car and ambulance tours.

Other special events—such as Family Fair and holiday parties—have drawn together dozens of families in fun, playful ways. Lego Night is so popular the group recently rented an additional room to accommodate the crowd.

Marking a year of successful operation, Becky hopes to expand hours and offer more special events. These plans require additional volunteers and funding.

“We need volunteers,” she says. She encourages grandparents, friends and neighbors to take part.

“You don’t need to have kids to help,” she says. “Our goal is to support the program and bring more events to the kids.”