Dedication in Action

by Jul 27, 2023People, South Brunswick

The Museum of Coastal Carolina presents Judy Sobota with the first Louise Ingram Coastal Caretaker Award.

Judy Sobota watches the fish swim in the Touch Tank at the Museum of Coastal Carolina in Ocean Isle Beach, her demeanor serious. After several seconds, she picks up a sea star and explains to the visitors that the sea star doesn’t have a backbone and its mouth is on the underside. She then places it in the outstretched hand of Lito Herrera, 5, before encouraging his brother Emmitt, 8, to experience the sensation on his palm. The children, their sister, Rowen, 11, and their mother, Elise, who are visiting from Evanston, Wyoming, marvel at the wonders of the exhibit.

Sobota’s dedication as a volunteer spans 21 years, and to show its appreciation, the Ocean Isle Museum Foundation, Inc. awarded Sobota the first ever Louise Ingram Coastal Caretaker award at the museum’s inaugural Beach Ball on March 30, 2023. The award recognizes a person who does notable work to preserve our coastal environment, heritage and culture through education, conservation and/or preservation.

“It was an easy selection,” says Jim Hoffman, executive director of the Ocean Isle Museum Foundation. “I’m not sure any single person has done so much for the museum since Stuart and Louise Ingram.”

Judy Sobota Coastal Caretaker Award

Stuart and Louise Ingram are the late founders of the museum, which opened through their determined efforts in 1991. The museum has increased its capacity three times since then. The couple’s dedication to the area extended to the skies, and in 2002 Ingram Planetarium in Sunset Beach opened.

Sobota says she and her husband bought a home on the island in 1993, but they didn’t move here from Kernersville, North Carolina, until they retired in 2002. That’s when she decided to take a walk to the museum out of curiosity. “I had never been here,” she says. She was pleased with what she saw and asked, “Do you need volunteers?”

She started in the gift shop, became familiar with all the museum’s exhibits and then held the post of volunteer coordinator. “Now I basically take care of the fish,” she says. “Everything we have here frequents our shores, so everything you see is what is swimming in the ocean.”

Her interest in the museum has become a family affair. Her five grandchildren were interns at the museum when they were in high school. Her sons — Matt, who lives with his family in Pawleys Island, and Robb, who lives with his family in Wilmington, and her grandson Parker, 21 — recently caught the tiny sargassum fish that are in seaweed and brought them to the museum.

Judy Sobota Louise Ingram Coastal Caretaker Award

“They’re baby fish, and we build them up,” Sobota says and adds that her family has caught most of the fish in the Touch Tank. “She makes sure the water chemistry is perfect for the fish,” Hoffman says. “She is here every single day and manages this operation herself.”

Sobota explains the museum follows a protocol for keeping the fish healthy and the water safe. An aquarium professional checks the fish once a week, and chemists check the water twice a week. They have taught her what is normal for the fish and the tanks and what is unusual, so she can make adjustments. The volunteers who feed the fish every morning leave her a report and consult her about any issues they detect. She, however, is the person who orders the food and fills bags with it so the fish get the amount and kind of food they need. Through all those years, Sobota says she enjoys seeing the children’s enthusiasm when they come to the museum. “It’s such an educational experience coming here,” she says. “So much is hands-on.”

A recent hands-on exhibit is Save the Ocean. Visitors stand in the “ocean” where pictures of plastic bottles and other items float. They stomp on the harmful items that appear in the water, and a display shows how many they have eliminated.

“People say, ‘You have a lot of good things for children, but I liked it, too,’” Hoffman says. “It’s an experience multiple generations can enjoy.” Hoffman explains further that the Beach Ball, which will be an annual affair, celebrates all the things that are good about living in southeastern Brunswick County.

Judy Sobota Awarded Ingram Coastal Caretaker Award

“We’ve taken strides here to conserve our coast,” he says. “The purpose of the award is to make a statement about the importance of museums in people’s lives. We want them to be involved in conversations about preservation, conservation and environmental education.”

The Ball raised $10,000, which will fund a new exhibit, now in its infancy stage. It will tell the story of the future of our oceans, beach dynamics and actionable things people can do to preserve the ocean, Hoffman says. “We all need to contribute to its preservation, to reduce single-use plastic and reduce carbon emissions,” he adds. “We want to generate positive messages about what we can do about critical issues that affect us.”

Sobota is modest about receiving the award. “I do what I do because I love the museum and because of Louise’s inf luence,” she says and adds that when Louise Ingram was in Hospice care in 2012 she told Sobota to take care of the museum.

“I said, ‘All right, of course, I will, but that’s not really why I do it. I would have done it anyway if she hadn’t said that. All people, especially seniors, need purpose in their lives, and this gives me purpose. I will continue to do it.”

Now Sobota is busy with her summer duties, including conducting a program at the museum called “All Hands on Deck.”

Want to go?
Museum of Coastal Carolina, 21 E. Second Street, Ocean Isle Beach
(910) 579-1016
Ingram Planetarium, 7625 High Market Street, Sunset Beach
(910) 575-0033