Sharon Wills brings a wealth of experience from the business world to the Marine Discovery Center, where she has volunteered for eight years. She spent more than 25 years in business using organizational and administrative skills that she has shared at MDC.

Sharon is often at the center working with executive director Chad Truxall on various tasks or speed walking over to The Artists’ Workshop next door to iron out details for the NSB Plein Air Paint Out, which she will coordinate this fall. Read about her in our August Volunteer Spotlight with MDC staff writer Lisa Mickey:

Sharon Wills

Q: Where did you grow up?
A: I grew up in Pasadena, Calif., and I was there for many years.

Q: What is your educational and professional background?
A: I went to USC (University of Southern California) for two years and decided that I was wasting my dad’s money because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. They had a marine science program with a research ship.

I applied for that program and was told I couldn’t do it because I was a woman and, at that time (1962-1964), they didn’t have co-ed facilities onboard the ship. That was very frustrating, so I knew I didn’t need to be there.​

Q: You left college and did what? A: I went to work for a while in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) right there in Pasadena. I did a lot of typing, but I also got to participate in all of the testing with Ranger, Mariner and Voyager. They were among the many exploration flights that took off while I was there.

Q: Did that make you want to go into aerospace? A: No, but all the guys there told me I needed to go back to school and get my degree. They told me I had to do something. I got married, but 2½ years later, he died. He was 26 and I was 24. He was an All-American at USC in football and he had a lot of concussions. I think he was one of the earliest football players who experienced head trauma and later, Landry ascending paralysis. When he died, once again, it set me off in a different direction. It made me ask, “What the heck am I doing with my life?”

Q: What did you do after that? A: I sort of went off into another world in California. I got into the drug scene and was, I guess, a California hippie. It was the ‘60s and I got into all that behavior. At the time, I wasn’t smart enough to question how this was going to take me through the rest of my life, but as I aged, I saw what a calamitous thing that whole era of the ‘60s had been. It shot all of us off into a completely different trajectory. I worked at JPL for a while and then I went back to school at the University of California, Irvine, which was a brand new campus. It was big in psychopharmacology studies.

Q: So what did you end up majoring in at college? A: Biological sciences. But unfortunately, I took the advice of a male advisor when I told him I wanted to apply to medical school. He told me I had the grades, but he said nobody would accept me because of my age. I was 26. At the time, schools looked at the longevity you would have in the medical profession and I was already eight to 10 years older than other med-school applicants. For some reason, I listened to him and the only regret I have in my life is that I did not apply.

Q: Where did you go from there? A: I went to work for a private, for-profit company that owned hospitals throughout the United States. Psychology and chemical dependency treatment was just coming in, so I worked for them for about 25 years. I traveled throughout the nation about 80 percent of the time. I had a group of about 30 doctors, nurses, psychologists, psychiatrists, pharmacists and counselors, and I would designate them to go out to all of our hospitals and to check patient care through records, accreditations, Medicare surveys and by interviewing patients. I did a lot of procedure writing, which years later, helped me assist at MDC. By the late 1980s, I decided that I was done.

Q: Experiencing the tumultuous time of the 1960s while in your 20s must have really shaped you in some ways. A: It did. It horrifies you first of all and then you figure out if you can do anything about it. When I came home with a friend who was a black child, my father let me play, but later, sat me down and told me she was a “different kind of a person” than I was. He never said anything about race, but that was a big shock to me and I thought it was just wrong. I was probably 10 and that made me wonder what I could do to help change things? It also changed the way I felt about my father. We had all kinds of races where I was in California and I decided I would make friends with whomever I wished.

Q: You had a lot of early life lessons. A: The big deal that I got out of it was that I was a female at a time when women were coming into the work force. It made me sit up and realize that I wasn’t going to be put aside for anybody unless I could be shown they could do a better job than I could. I gave them hell.

Q: You must have been doing something right in your job. A: I was senior vice president, still living in California. I worked as a consultant after I left the company. I started my own company assisting outpatient surgery centers, which were just starting. I worked with about 5,000 doctors attending a symposium and all they wanted to know how they could get approved for this new thing? How could they get accredited? What was the process? I wrote a policy and procedure manual for a quality assurance program and I sold myself that way, telling them I would get them through accreditation, through state licensure, and they would have a procedure to hire people. That was the beginning of a job I did for three or four years.

Q: Did you stay in California? A: Yes, but in 1981, the company I worked for at the time moved to Washington, D.C. During that whole time, I sailed. For some reason, I wanted to do ocean cruising, so one day, I answered an ad in the Washington Post for a crew member. I got the job.

Q: How big was this boat you were working on? A: The guy who ran that business delivered sailboats and powerboats all up and down the United States. Twice, I sailed from Annapolis to Puerto Rico, and then from Puerto Rico to the Azores on one particular boat called “Asteroid.” It was a 65-foot sloop. The people who owned the boat wanted to party in these places, but they didn’t want to make the long boat trips. I loved it!

Q: Sounds like you were pretty happy? A: I did that for a while, but I wanted to to go sailing on my own. I didn’t have a boyfriend at that time. I had just met Bill [whom she would later marry in 1996], but before we met, I decided I would buy a boat. The guy who was captain of the boat deliveries had this little brokerage in Annapolis (Md.) and I bought a Valiant 40.

Q: Where did you take this new purchase? A: I spent a year refurbishing it, getting sails and spending all of my savings. I sailed by myself from Annapolis to Georgia, where I had an engine-overheating problem. I had taken boat engine courses, but if I hadn’t been sailing down the ICW (Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway), I would have been in trouble out in the ocean. I wanted to sail to Florida and cross over to the Bahamas. On the way, I called a friend in Florida and she agreed to go with me. Of course, Bill was in the back of my mind the whole time. The plan was my friend was going to fly home from the Bahamas after a few months and Bill was going to come join me and we were going to sail back together to Maryland, but he had another family obligation that prevented him from making that trip.

Q: Bill eventually got onboard your boat, right? A: Yes. We sailed to the Virgin Islands and then to Venezuela. We were down there living on the boat for three and a half years in Trinidad and the islands. Venezuela was glorious back then. I was retired and Bill was a retired police officer in Montgomery County, Maryland.

Sharon and Bill Wills

Q: It sounds like you always had a love for marine science? A: I did. And when I came to the Marine Discovery Center for the first time, I was like this is just the dream of my heart.

Q: How did you land in New Smyrna Beach? A: We came back to Florida and sold the boat. We knew we wanted to live somewhere near the water and we ended up in Virginia on the eastern shore, where we lived for 10 years. Bill’s father lived in Florida, so we started coming down here every winter and then we decided to explore. We had never been to the east coast at all and we rented a house in New Smyrna Beach. Within a week, we were in a realtor’s office and bought a condo in 2011.

Q: How did you learn about MDC? A: We went on a boat tour and the guide was just fantastic. After that, I went to the Marine Discovery Center, which had just moved into the old high school building. I asked to meet Chad and told him that I presumed he would start building programs, hiring and expanding. I told him he was going to need procedures and that I would love to help him to get the structure established at this organization.

Q: When did you start volunteering at MDC? A: I started working with Chad one day a week in March 2012, and we worked on MDC’s procedures and structure as a growing non-profit organization. It was a rapidly growing place. Chad had been a teacher and had never supervised people, so we had to put together an organization chart. Those are the things you need when you’re building an organization. That’s what I knew from my work and that’s how I wanted to help MDC grow.​

Sharon Helps at Lagoonacy 2019

Q: Why MDC? A: MDC draws people because of our love of the Indian River Lagoon and we all want to protect it and preserve it. Now, I’m running the Plein Air Paint Out for MDC, which is our biggest fundraiser, but if there is a need at the center, Chad calls me and I come in to help. He knows what he wants, so all I had to do was translate it into a procedure and think of all the potential for a new procedure or a new program with considerations for budgeting. MDC still needs help and I am certainly happy to do that for as long as they want me to help. We’re making the templates for the future.

Q: What do you enjoy most about volunteering? A: I certainly enjoy being present at the creation. When the ECHO grants first started, it made me so happy that we were moving in the right direction. This is a great group of people to work around. There’s always something new going on and we’re all working to preserve the IRL.

Q: Do you volunteer in other places? A: I have served on the board at the New Smyrna Beach Public Library and was involved in the program that provides books each month to children under 5. We were trying to identify the children who did not have books.

Q: What are your hobbies? A: I’m a master gardener in Florida and in Virginia. I also love any kind of needlework and crafts. I’ve taken painting lessons at The Artists’ Workshop and I love movies.

Q: What is your role with Paint Out? A: I’m the coordinator, but I’m also working with Wendy Castino from MDC and Cheryl Faber from The Artists’ Workshop. The two organizations will share the revenues from the event.

Q: You are a lung cancer survivor. Are you OK? A: Yes, everything has been in remission for three years. It’s hard to believe, but I smoked two to three packs of cigarettes a day for many years. It was the thing to do back then. Even as a child, I would “smoke” a white rolled-up paper with lipstick on the end and pretend I was my mother.

Q: What excites you the most about helping MDC achieve its mission? A: Other than being a part of its progress and feeling like I’m helping in my own small way, I like accomplishing the goals of MDC through my previous work experiences. I want to be involved because it’s a passion. I can see where this organization can be in 10 years.

Q: Has there been a highlight for you at MDC? A: The cardboard boat races during Lagoonacy. It’s wonderful fun! I also enjoy working with the different age levels — and the brains and laughter at MDC bring a unique quality to my life. It just gives me such pleasure to be here. Anybody can fit in here. Any knowledge can be used at MDC.