By Maddy Vitale
How does a girl from Kansas end up in Sea Isle City, New Jersey and not only become involved in the community, but rise to President of the Sea Isle Historical Museum and co-direct the city’s Beachcomber Program?
“The museum was my way to meet people and find out more about Sea Isle,” Abby Powell said of her move here in 2014, during a recent interview at the museum. “There was so much that I wanted to learn about.”
Volunteering was also her way, she said, of showing her love for her new community.
“I definitely had a love for Sea Isle from vacationing here,” she said. “When I decided to move here full time it was the happiest day of my life.”
Powell grew up in Overland Park, Kansas. She went to work right out of high school.
“My mom was a single mom. I was brought up to be a volunteer,” Powell said. “It was instilled in me at a young age to help others.”
After moving from Kansas to Yardley, Pa. in 1996, Powell volunteered at her daughter Mandy’s school, beginning when her daughter was in prekindergarten and continuing throughout her schooling.
“I was a homeroom mother, sold uniforms and tried to get involved as much as possible,” Powell said.
While in Pennsylvania, Powell volunteered for Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit organization that helps people secure affordable housing.
“I became a speaker for Habitat for Humanity,” she explained. “I went around to churches and explained to them what we were about.”
Her time working with Habitat for Humanity was especially rewarding for her, she said.
“I think I was so drawn to it because growing up not having a lot made me appreciate these families were actually working to have their houses built,” she said. “People think all of the money for the homes were donated, but the families have to work hard for them.”
Powell also worked in real estate until about 2015.
That was when the single mom, whose daughter comes down to visit from Philadelphia nearly every weekend in the summer, needed to do something that also felt rewarding and fun.
“I needed to find something to entertain my time and I found out the museum was looking for volunteers,” said Powell, who just a few weeks ago was also appointed as a member of the Environmental Commission. “When I first started volunteering at the museum in 2015, Mike Stafford was the president and took me under his wing. I didn’t know hardly anything. I knew about Sea Isle from vacationing, but that was it. I slowly dug in.”
At first Powell, who became president of the museum a few months ago, would pick up books when she was in the museum and flip through the pages trying her hardest to take in a lifetime of history of the generations of families who have lived on the island.
Then she stepped it up a notch.
“I bought every book we had at the gift store,” she said. “I would read a couple of hours a day and if I wasn’t reading, I was looking up Sea Isle’s history online.”
Powell’s easygoing nature, warm smile and mid-western charm, has helped her in her efforts to feel at home in the small tight-knit community, friends said.
“I can pick my days to come to the museum and I choose to come on the days Abby is here because I feel the most comfortable,” said museum curator Barb McKeefery.
McKeefery’s sentiment brought a tear to Powell’s eye. “Don’t make me cry,” she said wiping her eyes.
Powell volunteers at the museum about 35 hours each week. She, along with 20 other volunteers, help keep the museum inviting, organized and well-displayed.
Somehow Powell manages volunteer in another capacity, for a program that is close to her heart.
In 2016 Powell became co-director of the city’s Beachcomber program from mid-June through August. She, along with Marianne Snyder, provide guided tours of the beach, collect and identify local shells, search the sands and teach about marine life.
“The Environmental Commission does two beach cleanups and then, with our guided tours, we teach people the importance of picking up,” Powell said. “Just one water bottle takes years to disintegrate.”
She feels so strongly about cleaning up the community, it isn’t unusual to see picking up discarded plastic water bottles around town to properly dispose of.
“We teach children and parents in the tours about seashells, water, sand dunes and all of the animals on the island,” she said.
Whether it is working at the historical museum, taking to the sands to educate people about the ocean or sitting at the dais for an Environmental Commission meeting, Powell has learned a lot about the history of Sea Isle and the people in it.
“I wasn’t sure how I was going to fit in,” Powell said. “But the locals here in Sea Isle are the kindest people I have ever known.”