There is a small workshop inside a garage in Reno where wooden structures meant to spark young children’s imaginations are built. The garage belongs to Jerry Johnsen, and it’s where he creates — often alongside his 18-year-old grandson — elements for exhibits at the KidZone Museum in Truckee. He finds comfort and fulfillment in donating his time to make these structures, especially after experiencing the loss of his wife, Wanda. 

His latest work is currently part of the museum’s first social-emotional exhibit and its first since the pandemic. Hundred Acre Wood, as the installation is called, “brings to life the century-old Winnie-the-Pooh stories of author A.A. Milne and illustrator E.H. Shepard,” according to the KidZone.

WHERE IT ALL STARTS: Jerry Johnsen’s garage serves as a workshop for building structures for the KidZone Museum’s exhibits.

“The theme was chosen because each of those characters carry a really strong emotion,” KidZone Executive Director Carol Meagher said. The goal is to expose children to empathy, self-reflection, and connection, helping them understand and identify feelings. 

Advertisement

In line with the social-emotional theme, building elements of the exhibit was healing for Johnsen. “My wife developed cancer in 2018 and went through chemotherapy,” he said. “And actually, that’s when I really stopped doing volunteer handyman work. She passed away in August 2022, and that was when I immediately got back into it, just to help me through the grief, and it’s been very helpful for me.”

MORE THAN A CART: The objects that Johnsen builds for the KidZone provide opportunities for children to express themselves in play and emotion. Photos by Jerry Johnsen

At the heart of the Hundred Acre Wood exhibit is a gathering table built by Johnsen. The space is intended to be a place where kids and caregivers can come together and talk about the exhibit and their feelings, pretend to share a meal, and be present. Surrounding the gathering table are installations dedicated to the Winnie-the-Pooh characters and their various personalities.

Johnsen also had his hand in building the potting bench in Rabbit’s garden, an interactive wooden box, a structure for Eeyore, and wheelbarrows. “We had been given a boat, which he modified to make it better, and then he even made another one for us,” said KidZone philanthropy officer Jen Parker.

The staff at KidZone affectionately refer to Johnsen as Grandpa Jerry. He began visiting the museum in 2011 with his grandchildren, who are now ages 13 through 18. He would purchase a family pass for his daughter, Meghan Ruiz, allowing his grandkids to enjoy the wonder of being transported to a world of pirates, enchanted forests, Truckee history, and whatever the museum’s exhibit was at any given time. As he walked around the museum, he noticed areas that could be improved, and he reached out to Meagher to offer his assistance with maintenance tasks, which was gratefully accepted.

HANDS-ON HELP: The new exhibit at the KidZone received much of its display from Grandpa Jerry. Photo by Jared Alden/Moonshine Ink

The nonprofit organization gifted Johnsen free family passes in appreciation for his help. However, he asked that they be passed on to other families, insisting that he continue purchasing his family’s passes independently. “The KidZone would always gift him a pass, I think it was essentially, it was for us, right?” Ruiz said. “But he was like, ‘no, no, no, that’s okay. You give that to another family.’”

Over time, Johnsen’s contributions evolved from maintenance work to bigger projects, including the air maze, which Meagher said is a kid favorite. He learned as he went; Johnsen is not a handyman by trade. “I worked white-collar jobs,” he said, in reference to his position as the human resource director for the Children’s Home Society of South Dakota, the state where he was born and raised. “Everything I’ve learned is self-taught. I learn by reading manuals or watching videos, whatever the case may be, on how to repair things.” His motivation to learn came from watching his dad. “I grew up on a farm and my father was always willing to try to fix anything. And so maybe there was some innate aptitude I had for that also.”

In 2005, Johnsen and his wife, Wanda, were still living in South Dakota when their daughter, who lived in Reno at the time, gave birth to her first son, Joaquin. The baby required medical attention, which he received at Lucille Children’s Hospital in Palo Alto. The Johnsens were grateful for the Ronald McDonald House near the hospital, where they stayed for free for extended periods while Joaquin was being treated.

Two years later, the Johnsens found themselves back at a Ronald McDonald house, but this time in Reno, and as volunteers instead of guests. They had recently moved to Reno to be closer to Ruiz and her growing family, who had relocated to Truckee. “In 2008, I started doing volunteer work at the Ronald McDonald House in Reno; we wanted to do some payback. So, both of us started volunteering [there],” Johnsen said.

Today, Grandpa Jerry has three grown grandsons from his daughter, Meghan. And while they are now too old to play at the KidZone, Johnsen still gives his time as a volunteer, as he did with its latest exhibit. He also enjoys the quality time he gets with Joaquin, who helps him in his workshop and on various projects at Sierra Expeditionary Learning School, where Joaquin attended elementary and middle school.

“My dad has always been involved with giving back to the community in one way or another, and for me as a parent, I love that example for my boys,” Ruiz said. “A lot of times Joaquin will go and help him … and I just love that not only does it teach the kids some hands-on skills, some carpentry skills and handyman skills, but it also teaches giving with the expectation of not getting anything in return — just your time and your energy to make something better.”

Johnsen finds that his volunteer work gives back in more ways than one. “If you read about grief and getting through it, you learn that you need to get engaged. My help was doing volunteer work, and it was very beneficial in dealing with the grief [of losing my wife],” Johnsen said. “I really enjoy doing the work. And then, on top of that, you get personal satisfaction from helping a nonprofit.” 

Author

  • Tiffany Connolly

    Tiffany Connolly joined Moonshine Ink in 2023, six years after leaving her teaching career to focus on writing. She owns a small marketing business in Truckee and is thrilled to be writing stories that make an impact. Tiffany holds a bachelor's in art history from UCLA and master's in education from Pepperdine University. She loves fast and flowy mountain bike trails and movie nights with her family.

Advertisement
Previous articleThe Lowdown on Interest Rates
Next articleThere’s Snow Place Like Home

1 COMMENT