Mackenzie Teo became a Pioneer when she was 17 years old.
Mackenzie spent more than half her life in foster care before she was adopted in November 2014, six months before she would have aged out of the system. Because she was an older child when she entered the care of the state, her chances of being adopted were not good. She spent time in 26 different “placements,” including group homes. She considers two of them “good” — stable, loving, kind, supportive — placements.
When Mackenzie first met the family who would eventually adopt her, she had one pair of shoes that were two and a half sizes too small. They had holes everywhere. She wore an ill-fitting dress, the nicest she could find, and these blownout brown sneakers. She wore those shoes everywhere — to church, to school, to meet the people she hoped would become her family — because they were the only shoes she had.
A couple of years later, when Mackenzie came back to this family, this time forever, she had no shoes. She borrowed a pair of sandals that were three sizes too small for the day she saw her foster mom again. She had attended school barefoot for weeks because the group home she lived in didn’t provide her shoes like they should have.
When Mackenzie was finally adopted, she asked her mom for 17,000 pairs of shoes. In Arizona, where Mackenzie lives with her family, the most recent official statistics say that 16,990 children are in the custody of the state, living with foster families, in group homes, or with extended family members. Nearly 17,000 children — Mackenzie wanted to draw attention to that number. Mackenzie wants to help those children.
Mackenzie asked for 17,000 pairs of shoes so that she could help people visualize how many children are in foster care, how many children need help.
Together with her mom, Mackenzie is collecting those 17,000 pairs of new children’s shoes to make a video that will help people understand the needs of children in her state. When the video is completed and published, Mackenzie wants to donate those shoes to the children who need them.
The Foster Children’s Rights Coalition is helping Mackenzie with this project, which she calls Footsteps. Her story has been told in The New York Times and in The Huffington Post and in The Arizona Republic.
Mackenzie is a brave, strong young woman, but sharing her story is not easy. She’d prefer that many of these details remain private, that she didn’t have to become known as “a foster child” before being known as a smart girl who likes to cook and spend time with her family. But Mackenzie is putting the needs of other kids before her own and trying to call attention to a problem and find ways to fix it. She hopes that sharing her story changes things for others.
Mackenzie has found a smart way to better the lives of children who often can’t speak for themselves, while she’s still a teenager herself. Mackenzie is a Pioneer.