As Peggie Garner rushed in the pouring rain to the Onslow County Chamber of Commerce “Woman of the Year” luncheon, her biggest concerns were arriving on time and staying dry.
Little did she know she had been nominated for the award, and in fact, would be making an acceptance speech mere moments later.
“As they began describing the winner, I kept thinking to myself, ‘That’s really cool. I wonder who it is?’” says Garner, director of Cooperative Extension in Onslow County. Then recognition dawned, and she felt her face flush crimson.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” she says. “Then I turned around and all I could see were my parents. My dad has Parkinson’s disease and uses a walker … and my brother was there with his wife. He’s been living with brain cancer. Then I saw this trail of people behind them, and I just lost it.
“And, of course, that’s when they called me up to accept the award,” she says with a laugh. “Despite the mascara running down my face, it was awesome.”
Born in Carteret County and raised in Craven County, Garner earned a bachelor’s degree in school and community health in 1983 and master’s degree in education in 1993, both from East Carolina University. After a 12-year stint as a health educator and later a health education supervisor for the Onslow County Health Department, she joined Cooperative Extension in 1995, and she says, “I never looked back.”
When she became director of the Onslow County office in 2001, her duties grew to include more administrative work, but her engagement in and passion for her community never waned.
Garner has received a number of awards and honors throughout her career, including the Individual Distinguished Service Award from the mayor’s Committee for Persons with Disabilities. She served as president of the Onslow County Partnership for Children from 1999 to 2002 and has served on the North Carolina Board for Health Education Inc.
She has worked with AIDS patients, the elderly, children, new parents, individuals with developmental disabilities … the list goes on. Asked to name the one cause closest to her heart, she replies, “All of them.”
Her favorite part of the job? That’s an easy one: the people.
“If something happened and I had to retire tomorrow, I can easily say that this has been a great career,” Garner says. “I have a wonderful, creative staff. We’re like brothers and sisters, and I’m grateful for that.”
Their current list of projects includes the ground-breaking of the Onslow Discovery Garden, a four-acre arboretum that will include an ability garden, children’s garden and pavilion for community gatherings; two popular farmers markets; and the Horticultural Entreprenuerial Leadership Program (HELP), which eventually will include a 15-acre incubator farm for citizens interested in starting their own vegetable gardens.
“The HELP initiative takes them from soil sampling to selling,” Garner said. “And last year’s class was able to donate more than $1,000 worth of produce to the soup kitchen.”
In a typical day, Garner’s work runs the gamut of issues people face in their everyday lives, from housing issues to financial planning. “Just the other week, I talked with young couples at the hospital’s ‘baby boot camp’ about infant CPR, ate lunch, then led a class on fall prevention at the senior center,” Garner says.
“My internal mode, the thing that keeps me plugging along is, ‘What can I do that will make a difference in somebody’s life?’” she says. “We have a tremendous opportunity in Extension to make real change, to help our communities.”
It is this philosophy and her unwavering commitment to her community that earned Garner “Woman of the Year” honors.
“Some people say they’ve dreamt of stuff like that, but I never did … I just didn’t see myself that way,” she says. “I do what I do because I love to do it and not for any other reason.”
After regaining her composure at the awards luncheon, Garner was quick to credit the people around her with her success.
“I was the first girl in our family who had gone to college, and my parents were the wind beneath my wings,” she says. “I’m very blessed. I have a very caring, loving family that I was born into, and I also have a very loving and caring family that God has blessed me with. And not everybody has that. I try very hard not to take that for granted.
“As you get older, you realize the luxuries in life,” she says. “It’s not the huge material things. It’s the blessings that matter most.”
— Suzanne Stanard