Meet Madeleine And Her Little
Madeleine McGee — fierce conservationist, former city councilwoman and longtime mentor to her Little Sister — wants you to know about the program that has brought so much joy into her life and transformed another’s. By Jennifer Tuohy. Photos by Steve Rosamilia.
On April 2, 2008, Madeline McGee received a rather unusual birthday present; a six-year-old little sister. McGee was then single, living alone and taking time out, having stepped down from running the Coastal Community Foundation for the past decade. A longtime proponent and champion of nonprofit organizations across South Carolina, McGee turned to one to help fill a void. “I decided I wanted to have children in my life,” McGee, a lifelong Sullivan’s Island resident, says. “A good friend told me about the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, and they worked their magic and matched me with Lizzy.”
Big Brothers Big Sisters is a national one-on-one mentoring program with more than a hundred years of history. e Charleston chapter is based at the Carolina Youth Development Center in North Charleston and has been active in the area for 38 years. BBBS brings together “at risk” children with well-adjusted adults who are looking to help their community.
“Children that need a mentor come from situations where they’re considered “at risk” — a big term, but basically it means anybody that feels like their child could use an additional role model is a family we would consider,” Christina Ho ecker, Program Director, says. “It could just be that they’re the only girl in the family, or being raised by Grandma, or they’re one of five children and they need a little support.”
In Lizzy Naguib’s case, she had recently lost her father and had moved to Charleston from Colorado with her mother, who had little support. “I’d been able to maintain a sense of being able to parent her throughout her father’s illness, but now I just needed some support,” Terri, Lizzy’s mother, explains. “I needed someone to come in just to have some fun with her — to do the things I no longer was up for doing, the things that used to bring joy were becoming overwhelming suddenly. I wanted to limit the impact of his death on a six-year-old. I wanted her to have fun.”
Finding the Fun
For those who know Madeleine McGee, fun is an adjective that immediately comes to mind. Dynamic and attractive, 56-year-old McGee’s energy and intelligence is obvious the moment you meet her, as is her well-bred Southern charm, tempered by a delightfully relaxed attitude. Married to F.C. “Bunky” Wichmann Jr. since 2013, McGee lives in her childhood beach home on I’on Avenue, a stone’s throw from Sullivan’s Island’s bustling business district.
As I arrive at the house on New Year’s Eve to talk with McGee and Naguib, now 15, young people are flowing in and out — each greeted enthusiastically by Beau, an 11-year-old Boykin Spaniel. We sit down in the historic beach house’s family room surrounded by the slightly wilting evidence that a very full, warm family Christmas just took place.
McGee and her husband love to entertain, throwing parties for “a few people” on a regular basis. Since retiring from the Coastal Community Foundation, McGee has channeled her expertise and energies into assisting the entire state’s nonprofit community, as president of South Carolina Association of Nonprofit Organizations (recently rebranded Together SC). She has also helped shepherd the island through the process of building its new elementary school as a member of town council.
Before Lizzy entered her life, McGee had preparation for her role courtesy of being the favorite aunt to her actual little sister’s three children. “Evie married and had children when I did not,” McGee says. When Evie and her husband would come to stay, McGee often helped her niece and nephews “sneak out” of the house. “We’d ride bikes from our house to Sea Biscuit early in the morning. I did it so that my sister and her husband could sleep late, but I’d tell the kids we were sneaking out — we’d even climb out the window.” Off they’d run to devour plates of fluffy pancakes and maple syrup at the Isle of Palms restaurant.
McGee’s family has welcomed Lizzy with open arms. “My whole family has been wonderful about inviting Lizzy and Terri to be part of the family,” she says. As if proving her point, a Christmas gift for Lizzy from McGee’s brother-in-law, comedian Stephen Colbert, sits waiting on the coffee table. It’s a copy of America’s First Daughter, Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie’s story of Thomas Jefferson’s eldest daughter.
Apparently, Lizzy’s bookshelves are full of tomes written by guests on Colbert’s nightly CBS television show, The Late Show. “Sometimes he even gets them inscribed,” McGee says.
The novel reflects Lizzy’s passion for politics, both old and new. The hit Broadway show about another Founding Father, Hamilton: An American Musical, is a favorite of hers. “I know all the songs by heart,” she says. A few weeks after our interview, Lizzie and Terri attend the Women’s March in Washington D.C.
“History and politics, marginalized groups, learning about oppression and how that’s shaped the U.S., that’s all really interesting to me,” Lizzy says. “I am the child of an Egyptian immigrant, and so I recognize that some people have to go through unequal treatment. It really upsets me, and I want to do my part in changing it.”
How to run a country — or a small barrier island — is one of many interests McGee helped spark in Lizzy. When she ran for Town Council in 2009, Lizzy was her number one supporter, helping her campaign around the island. McGee also introduced her to kayaking (“Kayaking is completely Madeleine, I don’t think I ever would have done that on my own,” Lizzy says). Other interests McGee nurtured include cooking and knitting. “I was interested in it for a little longer than a split second,” Lizzy says. So, McGee, who knew nothing about knitting, arranged to have friend and former island resident, Niki Ross, come teach them. Today, Lizzy gets her required school volunteer hours by crocheting blankets for MUSC.
“Madeleine was willing to do things for Lizzy that I wasn’t always able to,” Terri says. But, per BBBS guidelines, never of a monetary nature. “She would listen to Lizzy’s interest and then provide an avenue to go out and explore them.”
McGee also took full advantage of her childhood playground to entertain her little sister. “There’s no better place to mentor a child than Sullivan’s Island,” McGee says. “It’s safe, it’s easy to get around, you can bike and explore.” For McGee being a mentor helped her get out and do things she wouldn’t necessarily do anymore. “We did a lot of kayaking, swimming o‑ the back of the Balls’ dock [Nat and Jane]. We had her birthday parties on the beach, and lots of cookouts.”
“We used to bike to Sea Biscuit for breakfast,” Lizzy recalls. “We went to the park a lot. You tried to teach me tennis,” she says to McGee with a chuckle. “Until you realized I have absolutely no coordination!” She spent so much time on Sullivan’s as a child that her mother says she asked if her first car could be a golf cart.
From Little to Bestie
As Lizzy grew up, the dynamic of the relationship shifted; McGee also welcomed three more children into her life courtesy of her husband. “We’ve been through some of the classic things you do growing up... namely adolescence! At first, she leaned on me like an aunt, but now it’s more like a friend,” McGee says. “She’s so intellectually curious, when I’m with her it is more like hanging out with an adult than a child.”
Today their relationship is less about ice cream and face painting in the park or kayaking o‑ the back of Sullivan’s Island, and more about helping her face and deal with the challenges of young adulthood, but there’s still room for fun. They recently took a trip to Manhattan, where Lizzy got to rock climb and see a Broadway show, and the friends still make sure to see each other as often as they can, especially for holidays and birthdays. Terri hopes McGee will continue to play a big role in Lizzy’s future.
For McGee an unexpected, but welcome part of being Lizzy’s Big was gaining Terri as a friend. “ e big part of this program is the mother. Terri is a phenomenal mother and she wants me in her life as much, if not more, than Lizzy does,” McGee says. “Terri and I have become such good friends, so we often do things as the three of us.”
“Lizzy would not be who she is today without Madeleine. e Big Brothers Big Sisters program was a lifeline for us,” Terri says. “She’s the husband I didn’t have — we partnered in raising Lizzy. I really believe it takes a village to raise a child and Madeleine was our village. She exposed Lizzy to a whole new world and opportunities she would never have had otherwise.”
Being a mentor gave McGee the opportunity to revisit her childhood on Sullivan’s, sledding the mound, twirling in the bandstand, eating s’mores on the beach, and it gave her the opportunity to positively impact a child’s life, something she would heartily recommend to anyone. For Lizzy, McGee provided a strong, stable role model, one that she can always turn to and who has provided her with “opportunity and perspective on the world.” “
They are a perfect example of how the program works when all parties are invested,” Ho‑ ecker says. “ This is how we hope all of our matches go. Madeleine is such a fierce and strong role model, she is someone that people aspire to — she’s incredible and I think Lizzy knows she’s lucky — they both know they’re lucky.”