The theft of a 5-gallon water bottle filled with pennies and dollar bills, donated to the Santa Maria Natural History Museum, has turned into an unexpected payoff for the nonprofit organization.
Since Oct. 12, when someone broke into the museum and hauled off the 70-pound bottle containing an estimated $200 to $250, nearly $2,000 has poured into the museum in the form of pennies, checks and several large donations from local banks.
The stolen money was part of the museum’s “1,000,000 Penny Project,” a fundraiser to pay for one of three possible new exhibits and celebrate the 10th anniversary of the museum’s grand opening.
“The staff of our branch on Santa Maria Way read about the museum’s plight in the newspaper and their instant reaction was, ‘We want to replace the pennies that were lost,’” said Andy Frokjer, communications manager for Rabobank, which gave the museum $1,000 this week. Frokjer said the branch manager met with Virginia Souza, museum board president, and decided not only to replace the stolen pennies but to increase the donation to $1,000 to help further the penny campaign.
“It’s been phenomenal,” Souza said of the outpouring.
At Mission Community Bank in Santa Maria, employees at the branch read about the theft and came up with $125 of their own money to give to the museum, which the bank matched.
“Everybody thought it was rather tragic that someone would take a jug of pennies that kids have contributed to help enhance the Natural History Museum,” said Brooks Wise, president of Mission Community Bank. “We have six employees in the branch and they went home and dug up their own pennies.”
Wise, who said there are about 20 various bank branches in Santa Maria, challenged them to step forward as well. “If all (the branches) came up with $25 in pennies, we’d get them pretty close to their goal,” he said.
In addition to Rabobank and Mission Community Bank, the repairman from The Door Stop, who fixed the museum’s door after it was broken by the thief, gave $125 and a local Rotary club gave $94, and “we’re getting pennies left and right,” Souza said.
The museum has been collecting pennies since April in an effort to raise $10,000 for new exhibits. So far, they have about $4,000, or the equivalent of 400,000 pennies, Souza said.
One of the exhibits could be a full-sized mount of a Tule elk, an indigenous species to the area that was almost wiped out in the 19th century.
“It’ll cost somewhere around $10,000,” said museum board member Bill Decker.
A second exhibit could be the installation of a botanical garden around the museum building designed by nationally acclaimed landscape architect Isabelle Green; and the third a celestial ceiling — in essence, a fiberoptic star chart on top of one of the museum’s rooms depicting seven constellations in September’s evening skies above the Santa Maria Valley.
The estimated 8,000 people, including school tours, tourists and area residents, who walk through the museum’s doors each year “can come in and look at the ceiling and see the constellations and solar systems,” Decker said. “I’ve had people from as far away as Bangladesh who want to see the natural history of the area.”
Located at 412 S. McClelland, The Natural History Museum was established in 1996 as a nonprofit organization named The Samuel J. Perry Natural History Museum in memory of a native Santa Marian.
In 1999, as the museum grew and was about to occupy its current location, the name was changed to The Natural History Museum, Santa Maria, California, to share the stewardship of the agency with all the people of the area, according to its mission statement.
The “1,000,000 Penny Project” runs through the end of the year, and anyone who is interested can mail donations to The Natural History Museum, P.O. Box 5254, Santa Maria 93456.
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