"Every time I thought of those four miles, I'd work on an issue even harder. Yes siree. It makes you mad when a school is three blocks away and you can't go in the door," McAbee said. "Those kinds of experiences motivated me to be an activist. When I was 6 or 7, I didn't like that we didn't have books like the whites. I said if I got older I'd do something about it, and I did."
When integration came to Damascus, McAbee joined the PTA and visited the schools to make sure that the black students received the materials they needed as well as tutors. The Rev. Walter Edmonds, a local pastor who worked with McAbee when she was pushing for integration of the Methodist churches in Damascus, described her as the matriarch of the area's transition from segregation to integration.
"She's played a key role in this community and has been the backbone of the African American experience in this town as we went from a closed community to an open one," Edmonds said. "She's the mother behind the churches [Methodist] working together and having mutual projects today."
Margit Meissner has just about seen and done it all. The 82-year-old is a Holocaust survivor, worked as an interpreter during World War II, wrote scripts from Czechoslovakian novels for Hollywood studios, studied dress design in Paris and worked in the New York fashion industry.
In addition to having lived all over the world, Meissner also worked as a schoolteacher in Argentina, developed a national employment program for disabled high school graduates, founded a countywide program for parents of disabled children and, last year, published her autobiography, "Margit's Story."
She developed a passion for disabled causes when she was teaching in Argentina and discovered that her 6-year-old daughter had a learning disability.
"My daughter is the initial reason I focused on it [disability], but my commitment became much bigger after that," Meissner said. "The stigma people attach to people with disabilities is probably their worst handicap, and I have always been eager to change that so people will look at the individual first and then the disability. That has been my mantra and what motivates me."
Meissner, who lives in Bethesda, said she is also motivated to fight for the rights of the disabled and others because of the discrimination and persecution she experienced firsthand, growing up in Europe during the Holocaust. Meissner escaped what was then Czechoslovakia for France in 1938 when she was 16 years old. Later, when the Germans defeated the French, Meissner was smuggled out of France and came to New York in 1941.
"Because I am a survivor and used my wits and luck to survive, I believe that individuals can make a difference," she said.
After starting a teaching program for unwed mothers in New York and traveling across the world with her military careerist husband, Meissner and her family moved to Montgomery County in 1970.
"I worked through the PTA, and the first thing I did was to start a special needs committee for parents of learning disabled children at my daughter's school," she said.
Meissner eventually landed a position as a county coordinator for the disabled, helping county officials implement the Americans With Disabilities Act and develop programs for gifted students with learning disabilities.
"She is an extremely astute person when it comes to children's needs, and she works to plug in the things that are missing in their lives in terms of coordinating and connecting them with resources and services they need and don't know about," said Enid Gershen, director of programming for the Foundation for Health Education in Montgomery County.
In 1986, Meissner established the Transition Center Inc. (TransCen), which helps disabled highs school students find employment when they graduate. Meissner serves on TransCen's board.