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.


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."

Breaking down that wall would be no easy task. The teen was still doing poorly in school and bottomed out when he was expelled for truancy. He slept away most days. "It sounds funny, but that's how my depression was expressed," Michael McKenzie said. "I wouldn't get up usually until noon."

His new father saw potential in McKenzie, but he knew he needed help digging it out. "We got him some counseling. We had to. I was going crazy."

The professional help, along with a healthy dose of tough love from the people around him, helped McKenzie mount an incredible comeback.

Taking evening classes to make up credits, he managed to graduate on time and was voted student of the month three times in his senior year. More than that, he came to grips with his past and his mother's death.

"A lot of kids like Mike use their problems as an excuse to fail, but Mike was lucky enough to have people around him who cared a great deal about him and held him accountable for his actions," Steiner said. "We weren't going to let him use his background as a reason not to succeed."

McKenzie said something inside him guided him through the low times. Without it, the tough love and counseling might not have been enough.

"I didn't have a lot of opportunities for a long time; I realize that now. But when I was growing up, I felt this strength inside me, deep down, that made me feel I would succeed," McKenzie said. "There were a lot of times when I may have doubted it, but I still had that feeling."

Often, as a youngster, McKenzie had little else he could rely on. His mother's battles with addiction and poverty left her little room to raise a son. He missed a lot of school, sometimes because he was too ashamed of his clothes or where he lived to ride the school bus.

He would go whole days without eating, or he would force down a meal of whatever he could find in the unkempt kitchen--be it raw sugar, dry cereal or uncooked spaghetti. His mother was either working or, when she lapsed into an alcoholic binge, off partying.

McKenzie said he and his mother twice ended up living in dank warehouses, sleeping on shaky cots among piles of clothes and stacks of boxes. Once, at age 12, he was arrested for shoplifting. A schoolteacher had chided him in front of other students about his socks, which she said were soiled and smelly, so he went to a department store to steal some.

Another time he was kidnaped for several days by two women, co-workers of his mother who decided she was unfit to raise him. "That wasn't scary or anything; they were nice people, but it was pretty strange."

Again and again the strangeness in McKenzie's life prompted authorities to step in and take him from his mother, the first time when he was just an infant. Sometimes he would spend several weeks or months in foster care until his mother could show she had the means to care for him.

After he was taken the fourth time, after the police believed she was menacing him with the knife, he spent three years with a Garden Grove family. Even though he grew close to those foster parents and the other children in their home, he always dreamed of returning to his mother.

"She would come and visit every other Saturday, and then I would watch her walk up to the bus stop and leave," he remembered. "It was always hard to see her go. I had all these unrealistic expectations that we would be able to get a house and be happy. I just didn't see the whole picture."

When the day came to wave goodby to the tearful foster family and return to his mother for the final time, McKenzie was beside himself with excitement. He was certain they would now have the life he dreamed of. He was crestfallen when he found out that, instead of a home, they would once again be living in a motel.

That disappointment grew when his mother resumed drinking. One night he and his mother fell asleep watching television. He was roused by a noise and looked over to see his mother convulsing, gripped by a stroke. As she was rushed to a hospital, McKenzie, then 14, was taken to a friend's house and then back to Orangewood.

A few days later, a counselor took him aside and told him his mother was dead. "I didn't get to visit her in the hospital, and I really beat myself up about that for a long time," he said. "I know she loved me. No matter what happened through the years, I know that."

After that he was lucky enough to be placed with Peter McKenzie. If he had stayed in the shelter until turning 18, his life might have taken a decidedly darker turn.

Studies show that as many as half of the teens who leave shelters upon reaching adulthood end up homeless in the first few years out, said Shelley Westmore, assistant director of the Orangewood Foundation.

Westmore said she can also attest to other dangers, such as drugs, that await the cut-loose charges. "They get a handshake and a pat on the back, and then they're on their own," she said. "And it's scary out there."

Grateful for his chance to start anew, McKenzie decided he wanted to give something back. He began helping with Orangewood benefits and activities, and, after a summer camp stay sparked an interest in peer counseling, he was eager to help with a fledgling program being set up at the home.

Soon he was leading the effort. "Mike was just the natural choice," Westmore said. "He has instant credibility with these kids. As the program had grown, time and time again the kids will tell us the thing they got out of the sessions was, 'There is life after Orangewood.' That's the message Mike brings to them."

McKenzie is working this summer as a senior counselor with disadvantaged teens at the R.M. Pyles Boys' Camp in the Sequoia National Park. The boys are from backgrounds that mirror his youth--many have no fathers in their lives, and not much in the way of money or opportunity--and the camp stresses self esteem and personal responsibility.

He hopes to attend a four-year university next year to pursue a degree in child psychology or a related discipline.

Walking through the spartan rooms of Orangewood, pointing to the playgrounds he roamed as a pensive adolescent, McKenzie reflected on his long, scary ride and the sad ending of his mother's life, and talked about unfinished business.

"I wish things could have been different," he said. "At the time I really couldn't understand a lot. But now I see where I came from, the reality of it. My mom was an alcoholic, and she had a lot of problems. And that's OK. But I wish I could have told her goodby."

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