Costa Mesa, Calif.
Debbe Magnusen was sleeping soundly when her phone rang at 3:30 a.m. on New Year's Eve. A volunteer manning Magnusen's 24-hour hotline told her a young woman had called. She was in labor, had had no prenatal care and had hidden the pregnancy from her parents and the baby's father. Distraught, she had talked about leaving the infant in a park. Magnusen sprang into action. Telling the volunteer to take the woman to the hospital, she threw on some clothes and packed her "delivery kit" with clean bottles and blankets—she wouldn't need the umbilical clamp or sterile bandages this time—and hopped into her minivan. Entering the hospital room, Magnusen walked up to the woman, who had just given birth, and held her. "I always start with a hug," she says.
Several hours later the phone rang at the Broomfield, Colo., home of Mike and Jess Bein. After trying for years to conceive, the Beins had adopted a baby boy nine months earlier. Now one of Magnusen's volunteers was telling them a newborn girl needed a family. "When we heard the story," says Jess, 30, "we couldn't say no." By that afternoon, the Beins had packed their car and embarked on the 17-hour drive to California. There, they met Magnusen and the baby and began the adoption process. After complying with the state's weeklong waiting period, they brought baby Ryann home.
It was a happy ending for Rescue Baby No. 560, another infant who might have been abandoned but instead was saved by Magnusen, a suburban mom who founded nonprofit Project Cuddle 10 years ago. Starting at her kitchen table with a pencil, pad and telephone, Magnusen has built a national network of 1,400 volunteers who assist mothers and find families for babies who otherwise might end up in Dumpsters. Along the way, she has parachuted into some harrowing situations—from bringing food to a pregnant girl living under a bridge to picking up a baby stuffed in a duffel bag after having been born under the bleachers of a high school athletic field. "We work a lot with homeless girls," Magnusen says. "But we've been to beautiful estates. Anyone can find themselves in this predicament." Magnusen, says Amy Kalb, a counselor at Vista Del Mar, a Los Angeles social services agency, "may have started out thinking she was just going to save babies. But she does so much more."
She learned compassion early—from her father, a dentist, who would take 8-year-old Debbe and her five brothers and sisters on trips to impoverished Mexican villages, where he would provide free care. "I was inspired by him," says Magnusen, who, with her husband, Dave (from whom she is now separated), has two grown biological children and has adopted five of 35 kids they took into their home as foster children. In March 1996, Magnusen read a newspaper article about a newborn who had suffocated after being dumped in a plastic bag a five-minute drive from Magnusen's home. "Why didn't they bring him to me?" Magnusen recalls thinking. "But then I realized no one knew I was here and willing."
Unlike many, Magnusen felt for mothers so desperate they would make such a choice. Years earlier, four months pregnant with her second child, Magnusen had been stricken with mononucleosis and pneumonia, causing permanent damage to her heart—putting herself and her baby at risk. Fearful of having a miscarriage, "I shut down," she says, recalling her sudden feeling of detachment. "I didn't accept there was a baby inside me." In the end her daughter Lani, now 27, was born healthy. After her own experience she had a hunch that, with proper support, fewer women would abandon their babies.
She started with a simple idea: a toll-free number for pregnant women, no questions asked. Families interested in adopting, who had passed a home study, could register, meet the women and, if both sides agreed, start the adoption process. She gathered names of adoption lawyers and doctors who would offer free prenatal care and put up fliers in her neighborhood. Exactly 12 hours after she launched, Magnusen took her first call from a terrified woman. Estranged from her abusive boyfriend, she was about to give birth. Within days Rescue Baby No. 1 was born, a little girl, now 10 years old and living with the family that adopted her.
Since that time, Magnusen's group has taken off: She has raised $250,000 through fund-raisers and donations and recently signed up ER actor John Stamos as Project Cuddle's national spokesman. She has saved 564 babies, and gets the word out about her group through public service announcements on television and in newspapers. These days, Magnusen's life is a stream of interrupted dinners and canceled plans. Still chauffeuring her two youngest children, ages 16 and 12, to their many activities, she keeps three cell phones with her, and they're constantly ringing. "I missed my youngest's first day of school because I was at a birth," she says. "My children know what I do and why. But I feel badly sometimes." She has hosted three weddings, a bris and a naming ceremony. She has also presided over two funerals in her backyard. "In one case a baby was stillborn. The mother wanted nothing to do with her and the family who was going to adopt her didn't want to deal with the situation," says Magnusen. "I named her Ivy Rose. Her ashes are in an urn above my desk. I think about her all the time."
Magnusen can tell the story of every baby she and her volunteers have helped—and grateful birth mothers remember her. "If it weren't for Debbe I'd be in jail," says a Midwestern woman who says she became pregnant eight years ago after being raped. "I was going to put the baby out. I knew I couldn't give him love," says the woman, who asked to remain anonymous. After seeing Project Cuddle mentioned on TV, she called, hanging up twice before hearing a woman—Magnusen—say: "Please don't hang up. Talk to me." That boy, now 8, is Rescue Baby No. 77.
In less dire cases, Magnusen helps birth moms who, while not about to dump their babies, want to find them loving homes. "Debbe was totally nonjudgmental; it was always up to me," says Jennifer Whatley, 20, who was four months pregnant, uncertain of who the father was, when she learned about Project Cuddle from her mother. Magnusen helped arrange a meeting in 2005 between Whatley and Allan and Jody Guarino of San Juan Capistrano. The couple had a son Nick, then 7, but had tried unsuccessfully for five years to give him a brother or sister. Today he has both—2-year-old twins Peyton and Presley. "I know I did the right thing," says Whatley, who has two other children and gets videos and pictures of the twins from the Guarinos. "They are living a beautiful life." The Guarinos think they are the lucky ones. "These children have brought so much to us," Allan says. All of which keeps Magnusen—and her cell phones—going. "My joy is in helping a frightened girl find a great solution for her child and a family get a child they really want," she says. "Best of all, the baby is not abandoned. They are home safe."
Know a hero? Send suggestions to HEROESAMONGUS@PEOPLEMAG.COM Please include your name, phone number and return e-mail address. Project Cuddle's 24-hr. hotline: 888-628-3353. To learn more, go to www.projectcuddle.org.