When McKenzie Jones arrived on South Whidbey two years ago as a high school junior, she finally found a way out of the dysfunctional and abusive life she had been raised in.

Forced to leave home and stay temporarily with a family friend  just before Christmas of 2021 McKenzie was fortunate to have the support of a high school teacher and his family. James Baird, a social studies teacher, and his wife served as ‘host parents,’ providing a stable home from which McKenzie could focus on her studies, and eventually graduate in 2023.

“So much of this community has had my back,” McKenzie said in a recent interview. “Before, I wasn’t given a good chance to survive. I’ve never had this support anywhere else. I’ve been around the states—17 different schools since kindergarten.”

Part of the community that provided a safety net for McKenzie was the club, Soroptimist International of South Whidbey (SISW), which focuses on providing quality of life for local women and girls. The club awards a number of annual scholarships, including three for promising high school seniors.

The dynamic group of women who volunteer with the Soroptimists of South Whidbey. From left: Sally Montano, Jeanne Herrick, Robyn Meehan, Marlane Harrington, June Nation, Terry Welch, and seated, Marilee Nauman. The women took a moment to gather at their successful fundraiser: Whidbey Women + Art 2023, held at Dancing Fish Vineyards. The event raises funds for scholarships. Photo shared by Elin Waldal

Terry Welch, vice president of scholarships and awards for SISW, knew James Baird and his wife, also a teacher. Terry, a retired middle school science teacher, who fills in to substitute teach on occasion, shepherded the connection between McKenzie and her teacher’s family. Additionally, McKenzie applied for one of three $1,000 scholarships last May/June that SISW awards to high school seniors each year.

“I applied for the scholarship and they awarded it to me,” McKenzie said. “I wrote about women and empowerment. How volunteering was good for a young woman. I’ve been volunteering since middle school. My grandma is a pageant/wedding person, an event coordinator. She worked for Opportunity Village. I dressed up as a giant bear and performed for kids on the spectrum there. I decided I wanted to be a teacher, because I know they needed my help.”

Opportunity Village serves Las Vegas NV residents with disabilities and provides among other things, opportunities for work.

“McKenzie’s application really stood out during the review process,” said Elin Waldal, SW Soroptimist club’s past president for 2022-2023. “It was clear to the committee members and me that this was a young person who had persevered against all odds. McKenzie exemplifies what Soroptimist works so hard to support: a young woman determined to further her education to ensure that her future isn’t defined by her past.”

Meanwhile, with the help of the South Whidbey Soroptimist scholarship, McKenzie will enroll in classes at Shoreline Community College later this month, taking prerequisite courses needed toward earning a teaching degree.

Besides providing a scholarship, and a computer printer, SISW also found a car for McKenzie to commute to school.

“I got more involved after we gave her the scholarship,” said Terry Welch. “I later found out she needed a car and then mentioned it to our Soroptomist members and things went from there. Several members did the research on the car logistics (fees, etc.), McKenzie made a spreadsheet of expenses that she will incur owning a car, and I helped with the final logistics of getting us together–visiting the DOL, etc.”

Katie Basch, a new volunteer with SISW, heard about McKenzie’s need for a reliable car. Having just bought a new car, she graciously donated her 2007 Ford Focus silver sedan. “I’m not a fan of tooting my own horn—I’m shy about my philanthropy,” Katie wrote in a text. So here’s a thank you, Katie!

McKenzie Jones, left, celebrates the gift of a donated car from Katie Basch, a volunteer with Soroptimists International of South Whidbey, a service club which empowers women and girls’ lives. Photo by Terry Welch

“I had another car before, but the timing belt broke—an expensive break, I couldn’t afford to fix,” McKenzie noted. “I had to let that go. I’ve had the new car since Saturday (Sept. 9). I drove the other day to have a coffee. The gift gave me goosebumps.”

McKenzie Jones signs paperwork at the state Dept. of Licensing, which transfers ownership of a donor’s car to her. McKenzie received the car thanks to the graciousness of a South Whidbey Soroptimist volunteer, Katie Basch. Photo by Terry Welch

Equipped with a car and a scholarship from the Soroptimists, McKenzie was also awarded housing through Tiny Homes in the Name of Christ, or THiNC. The non-profit built a village of nine, low income tiny homes in Langley, which opened for residents to move into last June.

View of new landscaping and courtyard for a new tiny home village in the City of Langley. Between 150-200 Volunteers and many hands took part in making the homes a reality. Tiny Homes in the Name of Christ, a non-profit, spearheaded creation of the homes. Photo by David Welton

“I found out about THiNC through Mary Michell—she’s super—we’ve got each other,” McKenzie said. “She told me to apply. I talked with Coyla [Shepard, THiNC cofounder]. It really worked out. I didn’t want to return to Vegas and my biological mom. I couldn’t stay with the Bairds forever, so this is great.”

Mary Michell, is the McKinney-Vento liaison for the South Whidbey School District, and serves on the THiNC screening team. McKinney Vento is a federal law, requiring school districts to immediately enroll unstably housed children.

“McKenzie is one of those humans who is a pleasure to help,” Mary wrote in a text. “She is bright, driven and kind. She was often the one asking what steps needed be taken and then jumping on those tasks with gusto. Getting into college, getting into housing, getting scholarships; she was the one that did all the work. I was honored to be her guide along the way.”

Mary noted that presently there are 57 unstably housed preschool through 12th graders from 40 families in the South Whidbey School District.

It is heartening to hear a story such as McKenzie’s—by the way, her boyfriend Wayne Wahl, has been by her side since 2021, and enjoys working on cars. McKenzie is grateful for his loving support, along with the generosity of the South Whidbey Soroptimist Club and THiNC.

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