Passionate about assisting children and families, Joyce Sobel was a quiet leader throughout the islands for the last 43 years, establishing and connecting organizations in the community.
“She was a firm believer in collaboration, and helped strengthen families on all levels,” said Celia Marquis, who worked with Sobel in forming the Lopez Island Family Resource Center.
Sobel passed away on Jan. 24, but her legacy, part of which is founding the San Juan Island Family Resource Center, will last generations.
“Joyce was able to think big on policy, programming and advocacy levels and then turn on a dime to engage with children and families in a way that was genuine,” said Ellen Wilcox, San Juan County’s Community Health Services Manager. Wilcox worked with Sobel on numerous educational initiatives including a countywide early learning coalition. Sobel made families feel important, listened to and respected, Wilcox continued, because she pushed everyone to do their best and keep working to serve the islands most vulnerable citizens.
“At the end of the day she would also not hesitate to pick up the phone or send a quick email to remind me it was time to go home and be with my own children and family,” Wilcox added.
Sobel’s childhood was spent in Massachusetts, and she graduated from Jackson College of Tufts University in 1964, after which she and her soon-to-be husband, Lance Sobel, joined the Peace Corps. In 1965, the couple headed to Kenya and were stationed in a Kirangari secondary school outside of Nairobi. The couple married in that foreign land. Their assignments changed, to a Quaker mission secondary school in Kaimosi. Joyce gave birth to Duncan Sobel while abroad. Her love for her son and his family was clear, said Bill Cummings, president of the board of the Friday Harbor Food Bank, noting that she would often speak proudly of them.
Cummings knew Joyce since the late ‘70s or early ‘80s and said that she helped tremendously with the food bank’s financial planning and fundraising.
“She always made sure I was on the ball as president,” Cummings laughed, adding that Joyce was a critical voice in school programs such as Head Start and the Special Pal Program, which is designed to provide supplemental support for children in elementary school who may need additional assistance.
Early education, Jennifer Armstrong, executive director of the San Juan Island Family Resource Center, explained, was always Sobel’s passion.
“She would light up around young families,” Armstrong said, noting that Sobel’s neighbors, who have young children, adored her. Sobel’s yard was their yard, she explained, and they were always welcome at her door. Armstrong added that the recent announcement by one of Joyce’s neighbors that they were expecting a second child was one of Joyce’s happiest moments Armstrong had witnessed.
Armstrong noted that not many people knew Sobel was an excellent cook, often showing up to meetings with food for the group. She loved gardening as well.
“She was nurturing in many different avenues,” said Armstrong.
Armstrong first met Sobel during her interview for the director position of the resource center. Sobel was retiring after decades at the helm.
“For someone who founded this place, and ran it single-handedly for years, she was extraordinarily generous,” said Armstrong, adding that Sobel was transparent, never territorial and always just a phone call away.
“Her work [from early childhood education] naturally evolved into … helping the whole family, trying to make the children’s lives better all around,” said Duncan Sobel.
Being a mentor and steady hand to organizations was the quintessential Sobel, Carrie Unpingco, executive director of the San Juan Island Community Foundation said. After working with Sobel for years, Unpingco realized she was quietly mentoring her the entire time.
“She was so humble and never talked about her accomplishments,” Unpingco said.
Sobel was also a member of Soroptimist International of Friday Harbor, and through her work at the family resource center, and knowledge of people in need, the Woman’s Emergency Fund was established.
Joyce quietly became the connecting force between people and necessary resources. She, with fellow Soroptimist Nancy Buechner and Arnell Haws, created a list of county resources to make it easier for people to find available help. The original list consisted of churches, the Department of Social and Human Services, DVSAS (now known as SAFE San Juans) and of course service clubs, said Buechner. The list has continuously grown ever since.
Sobel was the chairwoman of Soroptimist’s cancer transportation program at the time of her passing and was involved in many other Soroptimist programs as well. “I always enjoyed her knowledge and enthusiasm,” Buechner said.
Bonnie Hendrickson, also a fellow Soroptimist and friend of Sobel’s, described her as an amazing advocate, mentor, teacher and community supporter.
“She was an earth angel and an always available go-to person. Our community suffers a tremendous loss,” she said.
Washington State Senator Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas, is working on a floor resolution in memoriam to Sobel.