I Spy Someone making a difference.
Margene Willis: Helping Horry County's youngstersby Corrie Lee Lacey
Early morning, you’ll find her swimming laps at the Conway Wellness Center. By 8 a.m., she’s in the office answering emails from mentors, or visiting elementary or middle schools to make certain everything is running smoothly. By evening, she’s catching up with family and friends via Facebook, and on the weekend she’s leading spiritual empowerment and community-building activities with her Baha’i community. When she isn’t keeping up with yard work and laundry, she’s reading a good book.
Margene Willis keeps her plate pretty full. But her biggest aspiration is dedicating herself to helping others.
Willis, public engagement/K-12 mentoring specialist, works for the Biddle Center for Teaching, Learning and Community Engagement in the Spadoni College of Education. For the past seven years, she’s devoted herself to the Dalton and Linda Floyd Family Mentoring Program – recruiting, training and preparing college students for mentoring in Horry County Schools.
Right now, Willis is busy preparing for “A Day in the Life of a Mentor” on April 14, when more than 300 elementary and middle school students will spend a day on campus with their mentor. She’s delivering T-shirts to area schools, preparing activities and sending reminders to mentors about the event.
But CCU isn’t the only place she devotes her energy. Willis is the grant coordinator and former chair on the First Book-Horry County advisory board, a local nonprofit organization that provides new books to children in need. First Book is currently preparing for its spring fundraiser, an author’s luncheon with Mary Alice Monroe, on May 7 at Bonefish Grill. Willis is working to promote the event every day after work.
“I have watched and admired Margene as she gives her heart and soul to all aspects of her life,” says Lorraine Coe, a previous colleague of Willis in Horry County Schools. “Margene’s positive attitude and calming nature make her a pleasure to spend time with professionally and personally.”
Willis is also an education coordinator for the Baha’i faith, facilitating junior youth and adult empowerment sessions.
The Baha’i faith plays a huge role in Willis’ life. In fact, Baha’i is what brought her to Conway 20 years ago. Her husband of 30 years, Bill, came to South Carolina to work at Radio Baha’i.
“Baha’i is the newest world religion,” says Willis. “We believe in one God, we believe that all humanity is one family, we accept the founders of all great religions and understand that we must all live in peace and harmony.”
Willis and her husband have more than their faith in common. She is from Manhattan, Ka.; Bill is from Manhattan, N.Y.
After moving to Conway, Willis devoted her time to motherhood – staying at home to raise her three children.
But she eventually moved from her full-time job at home to a part-time job at Health Care Partners, where, for seven years, she handled case management for pregnant women.
Willis began educating the community about HIV and directed the Community Coalition in Horry County for another seven years. She was eventually hired as a liaison for Horry County Schools – communicating with mentors and faculty. That position brought her to CCU.
“For seven years, Margene has been a mainstay of Coastal’s mentoring program and related civic-engagement activities,” says John Navin, professor of history at CCU. “The thousands of Coastal students who have served as mentors in public schools in Horry and Georgetown counties can attest to the tremendous effort that Margene devotes to her role as at-risk specialist.”
Willis prepares CCU students to be mentors and provides guidance to members of the faculty to offer courses with a mentoring component.
“There’s much to be said about Margene’s dedication and work ethic, but her most valuable contributions are directly attributable to the genuine concern and affection that she has for the boys and girls in our local schools – especially those who need help the most,” says Navin. “Margene is a great asset to our educational system and to our community at large.”
But as much as the CCU community appreciates Willis, she appreciates it right back. “I love this beautiful place. I love the diversity,” Willis says. “I’ve watched Coastal grow and become an institution of its own. The campus is gorgeous and small enough that students get the best of both worlds – a great education with an excellent professor-to-student ratio.”
Willis says working at CCU also gives her the best of both worlds. “I am able to do what I love and still spend time with my family and friends,” she says.
When Willis isn’t on campus, she’s swimming, reading or working in her yard. Prior to a hip replacement (and another scheduled for this summer), she enjoyed hiking and mountain climbing. But her favorite activity is spending time with her children.
Her son, Greg, is married and lives in Pittsburgh with Willis’ two grandchildren. Willis’ daughter, Aliyyah, is a history major at CCU. And her youngest daughter, Nurin, recently joined the Peace Corps and is living in Morocco.
Willis’ husband is a retired journalist. The couple’s most memorable trip was a two-week pilgrimage to the Holy Land of Israel, where they spent nine days in Haifa.
But when Willis isn’t traveling the world or participating in her many hobbies, she’s devoting herself to the children of Horry County.
“Margene is a leader, team player and genuinely kindhearted person,” says Emma Savage-Davis, director of the Biddle Center for Teaching, Learning, and Community Engagement. “She demonstrates on a daily basis her determination to provide opportunities and experiences to the children in the Horry County Schools that will improve their lives and build their character. Margene’s life is a testament of her belief in service to others.”
Gale Dale, assistant principal at Waccamaw Elementary School, agrees.
“It is a dream to have Margene’s assistance,” says Dale. “She goes the extra mile to provide helpful information. Her positive attitude is contagious. She is not a person who will add to the administrator’s workload, but a person who will work diligently to reduce it. Margene is truly ‘the wings beneath our feet!’”