Helping hands: Smooth sailing

Oct 25, 2023 • 4 min. read | By Beth A. Klahre

The N.C. Maritime Museum at Southport showcases the history of the Cape Fear River for visitors. Roughly two-thirds of the volunteers at the museum are older adults. (Photo by Beth A. Klahre)


Editor's note: Helping Hands is a recurring feature that spotlights volunteer opportunities for older adults across the Wilmington area. Volunteers at the N.C. Maritime Museum at Southport help the organization run a tight ship for visitors. 


When Frank Popelars retired to Southport, he and his wife Peggy jumped into the volunteer scene with both feet. They wanted to feel like a part of the town. A self-proclaimed water rat, Popelars was a volunteer diver for the N.C. Aquarium at Fort Fisher and volunteered at several Southport landmarks. He eventually found himself recruited to four boards of directors. Then, he found the N.C. Maritime Museum at Southport. Popelars has been a volunteer at the museum for 19 years. Today, it’s the only place he volunteers other than his church. 


“I introduce visitors to the history of the Cape Fear River area,” he said of his role at the front desk. “I like that the museum is free. It encourages people to come in. And I feel good when I answer questions and help visitors understand the history of our community.”


The N.C. Maritime Museum at Southport stands at the confluence of the Cape Fear River, the Intracoastal Waterway and the Atlantic Ocean on the grounds at Fort Johnson, a location that allows the museum to take visitors on a deep dive into the history of the Cape Fear region. John Moseley, museum manager, said that volunteers are a key component to the museum’s success. Two-thirds of the volunteers, who range in age from 16 to 91 years old, are over the age of 60. “I enjoy having older adult volunteers because they have a unique ability to connect the past with our visitors,” said Moseley.


Moseley added that the older adult volunteers at the museum have very diverse backgrounds. “Some are former military, some have business backgrounds, some have always been a part of their community, and some are former educators who love telling the stories of the lower Cape Fear,” he said. “They all contribute so much to the museum.”


Volunteers help with visitor services at the front desk answering historical and local questions, stocking shelves in the store and ringing up customers, and acting as tour guides inside the museum. Volunteers also contribute through board positions, historical research and costumed interpretation.


While many of the volunteers learn about the rotating and permanent exhibits and the history of the Southport area through their own initiative, Toni Foster, visitor services and volunteer coordinator, provides one-on-one training. A previous educator, Foster teaches volunteers how to run the electronic displays that showcase underwater cameras, how to run scavenger hunts throughout the museum, and how to use the cash register. Foster said, “There are no special skills or knowledge required to be a volunteer. You learn as you go. You just need to be friendly. If you like kids, that’s a plus.”

 Frank Popelars has volunteered at the N.C. Maritime Museum at Southport for 19 years. (Photo by Beth A. Klahre) 


Most volunteers spend three hours each week at the museum. Others help on multiple days for special events. “We understand that our volunteers donate their time and sometimes life happens. We are thankful for any time our volunteers donate to us,” said Moseley.


Popelars, who volunteers every Wednesday, concluded, “Volunteering is a good way to use my energy, have an active life and encourage brain activity. If you want to meet people and introduce them to the origins of our area, the museum is a good place to volunteer. The environment is good, no pressure. And it feels good when visitors say thank you and that their time in the museum was worthwhile.”


Foster added, “It’s nice to know that our volunteers come because of the joy in their hearts, enjoying life as a volunteer, doing what they love.”


Interested in volunteering? Register on the museum websiteemail Foster or call 910-477-5151.