By Samantha VanHoef
The Meridian Times
Dog bowls, Strider Bikes and robots line the walls. On the floor, a brightly colored rug sits while four sets of paws scamper through the 900-square-foot space. But by August 2015, We Love Dogs and Kids will move within the Meridian Mall to a location four times larger than its present size within the Meridian Mall.
We Love Kids and Dogs started as a way for Melissa and Chris Allen to sell dog bowls designed to keep the long ears of some dog breeds out of the food and water in their bowls. After travelling to sell the “Poochie Bowl,” the couple decided to move to a storefront in the Meridian Mall. Here, they were able to not only sell their dog-focused invention, but use their passion for creativity to encourage kids to use their own imaginations.
“Looking at all of our products and having it all be very inventor-focused, I noticed that all of the inventors started creating when they were little and were always getting in trouble for it,” Melissa Allen said. “So I thought ‘Why don’t we have something to encourage the kids when they’re little rather than getting them in trouble?’ So I brought in products that create the opportunity for them to make and build and create. I thought there has to be more than just stuff. There has to be an experience for the kids.”
Since opening in October 2014, the couple has developed a Maker space designed for kids to take household items and toys apart to discover how the items work. Items like laptops, Barbie dolls and door handles have been taken apart by kids and put back together during the session each week inside the Mini Maker.
The Mini Maker allows children to bring in items from home or use an item provided by We Love Kids and Dogs to take apart during Take It Apart Tuesdays. The event draws kids and their parents to We Love Kids and Dogs as a free way to discover how everyday items work.
“My dad went and bought a brand new toilet so the kids could take a toilet apart,” Melissa Allen said. “The next week, one of the kids who was here, his toilet broke at home so he was able to help his dad fix the toilet because he learned how to take apart and put together a toilet. People remember experiences, not stuff. You can buy a Build-A-Bear, and there’s a difference between that and buying a bear from Toys R Us.”
The Mini Maker shares a space with the We Love Kids and Dogs store, which according to Melissa Allen, becomes “crammed” during the store’s free weekly Take It Apart Tuesday event.
“We signed the lease last Friday for a bigger store in the mall,” Melissa Allen said. “Moving to 4,000 square feet means the kids will actually be able to spread out to make things, leave projects up and we can have birthday parties because (in the current space), I can only accomodate like five kids at a time.”
Although Take It Apart Tuesday has regular attendees, according to Chris Allen, the store still is an unusual idea to some people.
“I think a lot of people look at the name of the store and think ‘That’s weird, what is that all about?’ but I think once people come in and see it, it clicks a little more,” Chris Allen said. “People start to think ‘Oh, people treat their dogs like their kids, or they have both’ and with the Mini Maker side of things it all kind of just flows together. We’re basically just trying to be the new concept. We’re in a shopping mall, but we have things beyond … we’re offering a service beyond just selling items.”
The Lansing-based company works under the Allens’ principle of child-led learning to operate the Mini Maker, but employee Samantha Waterbury adds expertise to the dog side of the business through her experience as a professional groomer at AnnaBelle’s Pet Station.
“I really, really enjoy working with dogs,” Waterbury said. “I do better with dogs than I do humans. Even the horrible rough days at grooming and I just have a bunch of crappy dogs, I’m still doing what I love to do. I’m 23 years old and I’ve been grooming since I was 20 or 21, and a lot of people don’t find their calling in life that young. I don’t really ever get sick of working with dogs — they are my passion and my joy.”
According to Melissa Allen, even though each member of the We Love Kids and Dogs staff has their specialty, the main focus of the community is giving back.
“This is where we live and these children are our future. A lot of times people ask kids what they want to be when they grow up and they can spout it off right away, but nobody asks them what they can be right now. I think that that’s a huge part that’s lacking. So that’s what we’re working to do, ask ‘What can they be right now? What can they create right now?’ Just because they’re a kid doesn’t mean they can’t have purpose. I think kids are so scared to try because they don’t want to fail. This kind of gives them a safe place to fail so they can succeed after.”