Alumni Spotlight

Kathy Fleming Magnes

By: Whitney E. Copley
August 20, 2013

It is doubtful that any little girl climbed upon her daddy’s knees and said, “I want to be an administrator when I grow up.” Yet, this is the dream-of-a-lifetime career for one University of Pikeville alumna, made possible by three pivotal moments that changed her life.
 
While growing up in the small coal-mining town of Virgie, Ky., Kathy Fleming Magnes only knew the societal expectations of her family and local community. In her family, a career was almost unheard of for a female; instead, a girl expected she would marry (often at a young age), live near her family and have children. No further planning was required. Her life would simply unfold from there according to fate, not by design. Even a high school diploma was seen as something optional, because the young girl would often be married and starting her own family by that tender age.
 
However, Magnes can identify three pivotal moments that changed the course of her life.  First was the establishment of a community library in her hometown when she was 11-years-old. Magnes recalls that the first library in Virgie was simply a cramped, used mobile home pulled onto a stretch of abandoned grass along the road with a small number of musty donated books inside. “But it evokes the happiest memories of my childhood. At the age of 11, I suddenly had information about the entire world at my fingertips!” She quickly transitioned from reading books from the children’s section to advancing to adult-level reading. The benefactors of that rickety trailer-library surely will never realize how bringing those used books to an eager child’s hands became the first pivotal moment in changing that child’s life.
 
“I discovered that the world was a much broader place than I had ever realized, full of conflicting view points, exotic locations and fascinating cultures. I wanted to know them all! As soon as I absorbed one book, I would quickly pick up the next. I began to live vicariously through these authors, but was always left longing to see this fascinating world through my own eyes, not theirs.” However, that young girl knew that it was only a dream – she would marry, have kids and remain in Virgie. She could not change her life’s path.
 
The second pivotal event occurred at age 12, with a simple interaction with her middle school homeroom teacher, Mr. Potter. “I knew my society valued a girl’s beauty and athletic ability, but I wasn’t ‘extraordinary’ in either category. So my clumsy, awkward, 12-year-old self had no positive sense of identity to latch onto.”
 
Then one day, after her class had taken an IQ test, the teacher pulled Magnes aside. In a hushed voice prefaced with, “Don’t tell anyone, but I thought you should know,” the teacher confided her score. Magnes remembers that day clearly. “Although I didn’t actually know what the number meant, I understood what he meant. Finally, I had an identity that made me special. I am smart!” exclaimed Magnes. “I’m sure Mr. Potter had no idea that he was changing the course of my life that day, that he had given me a new identity that empowered me.  I continued to associate with that identity through 10th grade where I earned good grades effortlessly, but, unfortunately, had no mentor guiding me to use my intelligence to create a plan for my success. After all, I was taught that life ‘just happened.’”
 
Like so many other young girls of her generation, Magnes married, dropped out of high school and began her family. “But I felt restless and unsatisfied and found myself, at the age of 18, divorced with a small child and no diploma. But I still had all of these worldly dreams I wanted to accomplish.” Armed with only a teacher’s message that ‘she was smart,’ Magnes took the GED, ACT and college placement tests. She then applied for then Pikeville College’s School of Nursing, for which only 30 applicants would be chosen out of 90.
 
“I assumed that this is where my dreams would die. I was being judged against 89 other students who probably looked better on paper. Most of these applicants had high school diplomas to prove their worth and many may have spent the last few years participating in high school clubs, not raising babies full-time. Why would Pikeville College give this high school dropout a second chance when there were surely so many other candidates who had proven themselves worthy of planning their lives strategically?”
 
That is when the acceptance letter arrived, bringing Magnes the third, and most crucial, pivotal moment in her life. “Pikeville College saw past my dicey high school history and my questionable life choices and saw my potential for success,” recalled Magnes. “Without the review board seeing beyond high school GPAs and diplomas, and giving people second chances at life, I surely would not be where I am today.”
 
Magnes took this second chance seriously, and by then with two children, graduated from Pikeville College’s associate degree nursing program in 1992 earning the Elizabeth Akers Elliott Award for highest GPA in her nursing class. “Finally, I began to realize that I had the power to change my own life, if I so chose.” 
 
In 1999, Magnes decided that she wanted to see that great big world that she had discovered in that little library and change the path that she and her children were going down. “I took a chance and moved to New York City, followed by Philadelphia, and took lots of opportunities to travel and see the world.”  While a tourist in Peru, Magnes witnessed the devastating effects of poverty and inopportunity and vowed to someday make a difference in less fortunate people’s lives. 
 
“When the opportunity presented itself, I mustered up the courage to apply for a director of nursing position for the University of Pennsylvania Health Systems. Working in such an outstanding professional environment, I have been encouraged to grow academically and pursue advanced career paths. After obtaining my BSN, I became a licensed nursing home administrator and accepted a position as an administrator in 2011 for Penn Medicine, at an award-winning facility.” Magnes is the administrator of  the Pennsylvania Hospital (PAH) Skilled Care Center (SCC). On May 15, 2013, the SCC was presented the “Award for Excellence in Health Care Compliance” by the Pennsylvania Department of Health. PAH SCC was the only site in Philadelphia to receive this distinction in 2013. The award was established in 2012 by the Department of Health and is bestowed upon facilities with no state citations over the last three calendar years based on annual health survey inspections. Magnes’ SCC also received the state’s inaugural award in 2012.
 
Expected to soon complete her master’s degree in nursing administration, Magnes is now considering advancing to an MBA program to strengthen her leadership skills. “I never imagined, as a 10-year-old, that I would someday be an administrator. This is one of those careers that one evolves into, one career step at a time, until you mature and grow into the position.” Magnes reflected, “However, it would never have been possible had it not been for those pivotal moments in my life – a donated library book, a school teacher’s whispered disclosure, a nursing school board member seeing past my application to recognize my real potential.”
 
“Now I am trying to pay it forward. I realize how blessed my life has become because of opportunities afforded me by others and I want to create those same pivotal moments in other people’s lives.” In 2005, Magnes established a small program that has since grown exponentially, delivering Christmas gifts to homeless people on the streets of Philadelphia on Christmas mornings. Magnes explained, “The homeless in large cities are often overlooked around the holidays. There is nothing more rewarding than getting to play Santa Claus on Christmas morning, bringing warm blankets, clean socks and food to people who have just spent Christmas Eve night sleeping on a city sidewalk. I want them to know that they were not forgotten on that day and that someone recognizes their suffering.” Staff at the SCC enjoy assembling the bags and Magnes and her family distribute them to the homeless in Center City at 4 a.m. each Christmas morning. Having recently received a Penn’s Care grant for the program, Magnes expects the program to continue to grow and affect the lives of a greater number of Philadelphia’s homeless population in the years to come.
 
In 2012, Magnes was afforded the opportunity, along with her sister, to take part in a humanitarian aid mission to Guatemala. She, along with several engineers, social workers, nurses and doctors, provided much-needed health care, and built rudimentary stoves, and even a small home, for the indigent families living in and around the Guatemala City dump. Magnes stated, “There are 11,000 people, 6,500 of them children, who live in the garbage dump of Guatemala City, literally scavenging the trash each day for any food and salvageable items that they can find. A good day for these children is the day of the week that McDonald’s dumps its trash, as they may get to eat disposed-of burgers and fries that night.”
 
Magnes’ life was forever changed after that week of volunteerism. “No one could witness these people’s day-to-day lives without vowing to return. My supportive husband, along with several of his engineer co-workers, have now volunteered their services to return with me and my steadily-growing team of health care professionals to Guatemala, where we hope to touch even more lives, and build many more homes. My hope is that, in doing so, I can become that pivotal point in many other people’s lives.”
 
Magnes resides in Westville, N.J., with her husband, Dan, a manager at Lockheed Martin. They have five children, all of whom live in the area: Jordan Cable and his wife Fransheska “Frenchy” Alvarez-Nieves, Kristen Coats, Cameron Coats, Hannah Magnes and Matthew Magnes.

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