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The Living Proof : Troubled kids have to listen to Michael McKenzie when he tells them they can overcome hellish childhoods. With help, he's done exactly that.

July 25, 1994|GEOFF BOUCHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When his mother started screaming, Michael McKenzie just rolled over in bed and shut his eyes tighter.

The 8-year-old had learned during a lifelong tour of shabby motel rooms and children's shelters how to sleep through noise or hunger or even fear. She had been drinking again. He couldn't tell what she was ranting and sobbing about this time, but when he heard the banging on the front door he knew he had to quiet her down.

Half-asleep, he wandered into her room to find her fumbling beneath her mattress for a butcher knife she kept stashed there ever since a man had followed her home from a bar. She pulled it out just as the door came crashing down.

"When the police kicked in the door they saw her standing there above me with the knife, so they tackled her," McKenzie remembers now, 14 years later. "I think there were four or five of them. They wrestled her to the ground, really hard. I remember I just kept crying."

That night it was back to a shelter and an uncertain future for young McKenzie. It was the fourth time he had been taken away from his mother, and it wouldn't be the last. Already a grade behind in school, the shy little boy seemed to have disadvantages stacked against him on all sides.

His father had left long before, when McKenzie was an infant, and his mother was again seeking solace in a bottle. Like hundreds of neglected or abused children who pass through Orange County's social system each year, McKenzie had a head start on failure. But, unlike most of those kids, McKenzie escaped.

A handsome and charismatic 22-year-old, a college student and surfer with an easy smile, he seems now to be worlds away from his troubled youth. He's overcome emotional problems that made him a dour, depressed youth. And he's back at the shelter where he spent much of his childhood, this time to reach out to youngsters who, as he did, find themselves paying for their parents' mistakes.

McKenzie returned two years ago to the familiar courtyards of Orangewood Children's Home, the county's refuge for kids in distress. He came back to help create and now head a peer-counseling program that the home's officials describe as wildly successful.

Every two weeks, McKenzie and 17 other trained alums of the home meet with teens, listen to their problems and answer questions about drugs, suicide, pregnancy and other heavy topics. Most of all, they offer themselves as role models.

"A lot of the kids, the guys especially, come into the program thinking they're too cool for it to do them any good; they think we don't have anything to tell them that they don't already know," McKenzie said. "But when we tell them we've been where they are now, you can see them look up and pay attention."

The success of the program, and of McKenzie himself, has been like a tonic for many of the world-weary staff at Orangewood. They know the numbers are against them, so they embrace the victories. "We don't get to see a lot of the ones who make it, just the ones that keep coming back," supervisor Cindi Ortiz said. "We get a lot of negativity, so it's refreshing."

Another person who finds inspiration in McKenzie's turnaround is William G. Steiner, former director of Orangewood and now a member of the county's Board of Supervisors. The two grew close when the boy was at the shelter, and the politician picked McKenzie to hold the Bible for him when he took his oath of office in March, 1993.

"For me, that was like a happy ending after seeing a lot of tragedies," Steiner said. "I buried a lot of kids through the years, and I saw a lot of others take turns for the worst. They end up in jail or on drugs or become abusive parents themselves. It can burn you out. So when you have a success like Mike, it just renews your faith."

For much of his youth, it seemed unlikely that McKenzie would become a success story. Five times he was taken from his mother's care because of neglect. He missed long stretches of school. While most kids were grappling with long division, he was coping with a deep depression as he was shuttled between foster homes. But he never blamed his mother, whom he remembers had a "beautiful, peaceful smile" that could always renew his hope.

"I loved her, and I was able to forgive her every time. In reality, yes, I guess I was suffering for her mistakes, but I never really thought of it like that."

The dark years reached their nadir just a few weeks before his 15th birthday. His mother died of a stroke, and suddenly he was all alone in the world. "Things could have gotten really bad after that," McKenzie concedes.

Instead, Steiner asked San Clemente stockbroker Peter McKenzie to meet the boy. The two hit it off, and soon Michael moved in. Later, he would take his foster father's name.

Peter McKenzie had taken in troubled teens before, but he had never seen one who had so effectively shut himself off from the world. "At first I wasn't really sure Mike even liked me," he said. "He had the biggest wall around him I had ever seen."

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