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2023 power of giving community impact awards

World view: Magda Baggett welcomes international students, explores distant cultures


She grew up helping others in Puerto Rico.

As she puts it, she was “born into volunteering.” Her father was a member of the Rotary Club; her mother instilled in her the concepts of generosity and improving the lives of others.

Later, as a military wife, she took those skills learned as a child to other parts of the world as she pursued her love of travel.

For that combination of volunteerism, curiosity and exploration, Magda Baggett will be recognized as one of four winners of the fourth annual CityView magazine Power of Giving Community Impact Awards. The awards recognize Fayetteville residents who give selflessly and work behind the scenes to improve the lives of others.

“I’m definitely honored,” says Baggett, who is 78. “You do things not for the credit but for the good feeling that you get when you do things for others. … You don’t look for credit. It was nice that somebody thought of it.”

Carolyn Justice-Hinson, communications officer with the Public Works Commission, works with Baggett in Rotary International, one of the largest service organizations in the world.

“Magda is not just a volunteer. She truly cares about people and helping others,” says Justice-Hinson, who nominated Baggett for the award. “Over her lifetime, she has significantly impacted the lives of so many because she cares deeply about people and is willing to step up and lead.”

Baggett was with friends at the beach and missed two phone calls to give her the news that she won. When her husband, Dave, told her “they’re looking for you,” she answered the next call.

“I started to cry,” she says of hearing the news. “It was the best thing because my friends were there.”

Fayetteville is home

Magda and Dave were married 10 days after graduating from Marymount College in Tarrytown, New York, and they have been married for 56 years. They have four sons — Scott, Terry, Chris and Russell — and seven grandchildren, ranging in age from 14 to 22.

Their sons were born in different parts of the world as the family followed Dave’s military career.

He was stationed at Fort Bragg — now Fort Liberty — with their longest stretch in Fayetteville from 1981 to 1988 and returned in 1994 when Dave, also 78, retired from the military as a colonel. His last post was in Germany, and they returned to Fayetteville because “it’s home.”

Dave then began a second career as a physician assistant, graduating from Methodist University in 2000 and retiring from his civilian job in 2022.

When the last of the boys left home, Baggett returned to work in human resources.

“We moved a lot,” she says. “He went to Vietnam twice, so that created a lot of independence on my part and that of the kids because he was gone a lot.”

Helping in the community

Baggett became a volunteer for Better Health of Cumberland County, serving multiple terms on its board of directors and as president in 1998-99. 

“Magda is the type of board member to jump in and be hands on whenever needed,” says Amy Navejas, who was executive director of Better Heath and worked with Magda for five years. “She is a doer in every sense. She is willing to put the sweat equity and hard work to make things happen and ensure clients who are in need receive the support that they deserve.”

Baggett was then a social worker at Cape Fear Valley Medical Center for seven years, a job that included “a lot of counseling, a lot of helping the families or the wounded or the injured or the sick.”

“Magda is genuine in her love of people and in her belief that through service, positive change can be effected,” says Sue Hunter, who was Baggett’s supervisor at the hospital. “Magda is an open-minded, nonjudgmental person who loves people no matter their circumstances, background or ethnicity.”

Hunter says Baggett worked with doctors, nurses and therapists to achieve the best outcome for patients during and after hospitalization. Baggett also was a sought-after volunteer for projects such as developing an employee wellness program, Hunter says, noting she volunteered with the Child Advocacy Commission.

In 2001, she became director of international programs at Methodist University. Under her watch, international student enrollment grew, Justice-Hinson noted in her nomination. Methodist has been recognized as the most diverse university in North Carolina.

Baggett joined the Fayetteville Rotary Club in 1998 and became the second woman to be district governor of Rotary District 7730, leading about 2,500 Rotarians in 15 counties from 2010 to 2011.

The beginning

Baggett attended Catholic school when growing up in Puerto Rico.

“The nuns promoted working with the poor a lot, working with the missions, things like that,” she says. “If nothing else, donating your pennies. I think that started it, but what really got me into it, my father (Antonio Grillo) was a Rotary, and I saw how he and my mother (Lolita) did a lot of work for the community.”

Among other projects, they made baskets for new mothers and Christmas baskets for children.

She also was influenced by an aunt who was a social worker.

After marrying a soldier, the family lived in England, Germany, Hawaii, and other places around the U.S.

“Everywhere we went, there was a need for help for somebody,” she says. “So I hooked up as soon as we were married with Army community services, and they help military families, so I became a volunteer if we were in a post long enough.”

Three times, she became director of volunteers on a military post.

“I’m a hands-on person. I like to get my hands dirty,” she says. “I guess you can say I’m a control freak. I like to be in charge. Actually, somebody needs to be there, and many people don’t raise their hands.”

International vision

As director of international programs at Methodist University, Baggett had the best of both worlds — helping others and traveling to foreign countries.

She was intrigued by “the travels that it promised and, at the same time, learning about the cultures of these students who were coming to Methodist.”

Baggett enjoys helping international students adjust to life in America.

“I love to have students who come in as freshmen, and they’re a little lost in America. And you introduce them to a Walmart, … and they go, ‘Wow.’ The first Russians I took to Walmart almost died and went to heaven. It’s (something) that we take for granted.

“They start as freshmen or even seniors sometimes, but they’re quiet and they don’t have any speaking skills and they’re not sure what career field they’re going to go in. You see them grow, and it’s just great.”

In her time at Methodist, Baggett visited 20 countries to recruit international students.

“That was eye-opening and life-changing and fun,” she says of the travel.

In Colombia, she was an interpreter with an organization that provides plastic surgery for children with cleft lips. In Nepal, Baggett distributed pencils from a 50-pound box to students.

“That was the best gift we gave those kids. This was one of those eBay things where I guess there were leftover pencils that had the wrong imprint on them or something. … Instead of saying ‘Coca-Cola,’ it may have said ‘Coco-Cola,’ or instead of ‘Nike,’ maybe ‘Nika.’ They didn’t know the difference. They just had a good pencil. It was so gratifying to see smiling faces.”

She returned to Puerto Rico in 2017 after it was devastated by Hurricane Marie.

“I hate to ask for money. But I did, and I ended up recruiting friends who recruited others, and I ended up with $35,000 in a week. I was able to provide 2,000 solar lights because they didn't have electricity for months.”

She also helped provide water purifying straws and hand-cranked radios.

In her travels, Baggett has been to India seven times.

“The colors are just amazing. I love the fabrics and the people — the women, how they dress and paint themselves.”

She’s not alone

Magda is not alone in all her volunteer work. Dave is usually on hand to help out.

“It’s day-in and day-out,” Dave says. “If you back in the back of the van in the driveway, it is full of stuff that we’re taking to the Boys and Girls Homes at Lake Waccamaw — lamps, clothing and toys.”

He followed his wife as a district governor for Rotary International.

Most of their volunteer time is spent now on the local level, not internationally.

Baggett says she hopes to be helping others as long as she stays healthy.

“My great-grandmother Magdelena lasted until she was 110, so I guess I’ll be lugging along until the end,” she says. “I always said that 85 was enough, but I don’t know. I’m getting there, and I’m still around. So as long as I’m productive; I just want to stay productive.”