homepage logo

Leigh Gay brings her knowledge to the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum

By Staff | May 3, 2017

Instructor Leigh Gay shows guests a live Florida Fighting Conch at Lee County's Manatee Park at an outreach event. PHOTO PROVIDED

Leigh Gay, the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum’s newest outreach coordinator makes a point to never stop learning. Gay attended North Carolina State University and graduated with a bachelors in zoology.

Upon graduating, she spent seven months at the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

“I started with just helping run the programs. The field trips were run by the parents and we were just there as backup and support. I did that for about three months, then the next four months I did curriculum development where I wrote programs and helped update the existing programs that we had, they were a little outdated. We kept most of them the same, we just changed the information and how we delivered the information,” Gay said.

After that internship, she realized that teaching others about wildlife was what she wanted to do for the rest of her life.

Gay said her fascination with wildlife stems from Steve Irwin, Jeff Corwin and her uncle, who works for Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation.

A live Florida Fighting Conch in one of the live tanks at the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum. This mollusk is a fan-favorite because you can look right into its eyes. PHOTO PROVIDED

“On the weekends I would play outside and know when the Crocodile Hunter is coming on and Jeff Corwin and all those people. They were the first ones who really inspired me,” Gay said. “It just continued. I’ve always been a nature nerd.”

In high school, she worked at Wild Birds Unlimited which also played a role with her learning more about wildlife.

“I knew nothing about birds beforehand. When I started working there, I had to really understand each specific bird that was in our area, what they ate, what our customers wanted and I kind of got into educating them about the birds, not just how to get them into your yard, but what do the birds want and why are they coming to your yard,” she said.

In 2016, she came to J.N. “Ding” Darling National as visitor services intern where she worked directly under Supervisory Refuge Ranger Toni Westland.

“It was great. I fell in love with Sanibel, with the island, with the people here. I’ve always loved the beach. It was an easy sell for me.

A Tice Elementary second grader holds a Horse Conch and listens for ocean sounds. PHOTO PROVIDED

During her internship with “Ding” she began working at the front desk of the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum which eventually turned into a full-time job for her.

“Pretty soon, I weaseled my way in and got into the education part of it, which is great, I love doing it and now, I’m the outreach coordinator,” Gay said.

As the outreach coordinator, she helps Assistant Director Melanie Moraga with development and membership renewals. Most recently, Gay is in charge of one of the museum’s newest programs, Mollusks on the Move which was started by Dorrie Hipschman, Rebecca Mensch and Melanie Moraga. For now, the program has been reaching Title 1 schools.

“We try to get the information to them even though they can’t get here. We’re doing anywhere from kindergarten to middle school and maybe even high school one day,” Gay said.

The key points Gay teaches in her Mollusks on the Move program are that shells are animals, how to treat them if you find them alive, mollusk ecology, feeding strategies, improved observational skills and the best times to go shelling. Gay is hoping to have a fully-realized Mollusks on the Move program by this fall. Eventually, she hopes to reach out to more nursing homes and other organizations throughout the community. To do this, the museum is looking to raise funds to purchase a van to transport the animals to different locations.

This Tice Elementary second-grade class loved seeing the live mollusks and learning how to identify different local shells. PHOTO PROVIDED

“It’s a big chunk of cash, but it’s totally worth it in the long run. Not only for us (the museum), but all the kids we could reach without worrying about renting a van. I could go to two schools in one day as opposed to spending an entire 10-hour day just doing the back and forth with the rental company and transporting,” Gay said. “We’re very invested in the local community, not just the kids on Sanibel, but Lee County, Hendry County and Collier County as well.”

As of right now, Gay has plans to stay at the museum for as long as possible.

“The museum is planning on growing a lot in the next 10 years and I want to be around for all those changes because if the museum is growing, then there’s more potential for me to reach more kids and to educate the general public more. I can see myself staying here for quite a long time. Between loving my job and loving the location, it’s hard to find both of those at the same time,” Gay said.

To learn more about the Mollusks on the Move program, or to donate, contact Leigh Gay at lgay@shellmuseum.org or Melanie Moraga at mmoraga@shellmuseum.org.