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Omaha Magazine

The True Meaning of Grit

Jun 23, 2023 01:05PM ● By Sara Locke
Maggie Wadginski Has Studied, Struggled, and Danced Toward a Message of Hope For Those in Crisis gen o

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

Goals. Relationships. Intentions. Time Out. That’s how recent Westside graduate and current Miss Lincoln Outstanding Teen Maggie Wadginski defines GRIT. It’s a mantra she both practices and promotes—in life, in speech, and most recently, in ink.

Seventeen-year-old Wadginski has loved to dance since toddlerhood; a passion threatened early by a tumor in her hip and an operation to remove it at age 3. The surgery was a success, and the youngster learned to walk, and in time, dance once more. However, she couldn’t have guessed that dancing would be the skill that would one day earn her scholarships to achieve a new dream—a degree in forensic accounting.

“For a long time, I was on track to become a professional dancer,” Wadginski said, “But once I decided not to pursue dance professionally, I had to come up with a new plan for college.” 

Wadginski’s time with the FBI’s Teen Academy over the past two summers proved insightful; she wanted to join the FBI’s forensic accounting team. 

“They only select 20 teens to join this day program each year. We went to the headquarters here in Omaha, and we got to take part in a mock hostage negotiation. We learned about the process of fingerprinting, molding footprints, and we got to see the cyber work they do,” Wadginski recalled. “I asked what kind of a degree to pursue if I wanted a future with the FBI, and they said that they needed people from every field. It was amazing to see just how many perspectives they use to do their work. It is by default an incredibly inclusive environment, and I wanted to be part of it.”

Now that she’d uncovered the ‘what,’ Wadginski needed to suss out the 'how.'

“My mom and I used to watch the Miss USA and Miss America pageants together when I was a little girl,” Wadginski said. “While we had always watched together, it wasn’t until I thought about college that it occurred to me to compete.”

“Some of the pageant wisdom has stayed the same,” recalled Wadginski’s mother, Wyn Sipple. Sipple not only provides her daughter encouragement and support; she also shares her pageant stage experience as Miss Michigan Teen USA 1992, and Miss Nebraska USA in 1999. 

“You want to look your best, and of course Maggie is as beautiful inside as she is outside. I can say that, even though I am her mother. I’m biased, but it’s also just true. It’s also still important to be a little conservative,” Sipple explained. “You want to present yourself in a way that isn’t distracting. And it’s so important for your talent to be technically excellent and still entertaining. All of that was a constant, but the rest of this? The role of social media in the pageant system and scholarship program is huge.”

In the talent portion of the competition, Wadginski had only 90 seconds to earn 40% of her score—and she danced her way to the crown. 

Wadginski’s win was about more than accessing her education; it was about furthering a cause. After losing a friend to suicide in 2020, Wadginski learned some sobering statistics. 

“The CDC said that in 2023, 44% of high school students feel persistently sad and hopeless. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for teenagers, and those stats are increasing,” Wadginski said. “While I initially chose suicide prevention as my platform, I realized I wanted to reach a younger audience.” 

The teen took to the page. She penned her first book, titled GRIT is Our Superpower. The compassionate, timely work is a tribute to the mental fortitude and the sense of community required, even at a very young age, to clear life’s unexpected hurdles.

“Toward the beginning of the year, I requested a meeting with the school board. The state requires just one hour of suicide prevention education each year, and I felt that our lives were worth more than just an hour,” Wadginski explained. 

She had hoped to bring attention to the cause, but didn’t expect what came next. 

“From there I got an email from the Westside Foundation asking me to come and talk about my message,” she continued. “They suggested I apply for a grant from the foundation. No student had ever received a grant from the foundation before, but no other student had asked. I filled out the same application any school would submit, and they accepted it.”

Wadginski’s debut book is available on Amazon, Kindle, and at Omaha’s Public Libraries. With the grant she received, she’s handing out 1,000 free copies to children who may not otherwise have the opportunity to read it.

The charitable gesture didn’t surprise Sipple, who said, “After Maggie’s sleep away ballet camp, around her 12th birthday, she heard about a girl who couldn’t afford to go. That year for Maggie’s birthday, she requested that instead of presents, everyone donate to the dance camp so they could provide scholarships to kids who couldn’t afford it. That’s just Maggie. She sees a need and instantly wants to be part of the solution.”

“It’s not about making money; it’s about sharing this very important story in a way that children can understand,” Wadginski affirmed. “If you speak your message to a thousand people, that message is going to find the person who really needs to hear it.” 

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This article originally appeared in the July/August 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.


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