Co-Lin student accepts challenges

Published 2:11 am Monday, April 19, 2010

WESSON (AP) — At first glance Mytchiko McKenzie — or ‘‘Mytchie’’ as her friends call her — appears to be just a normal college freshman, with a slender build and a quick smile for those around her.

McKenzie, 19, a Copiah-Lincoln Community College student, has already seen more than most girls her age — even though she’s almost completely blind.

The Pike County resident was adopted by her parents, Richard and Rebecca McKenzie, when she was 7 years old, so she said she doesn’t know the origin of her first name. But she does know that the parents who chose her gave her the tools she needed to conquer anything she puts her mind to.

‘‘I have very good parents,’’ she said. ‘‘They’re the kind that if you want to do something, they’re going to help you find a way to do it. And whether you’re good at it or not, no matter what, you’re still going to learn.’’

McKenzie has a condition called retinitis pigmentosis that occurred as a result of her being born prematurely, she said.

‘‘If you cover your left eye and put your hand over your peripheral vision on the right side, you’ve got about a 6-inch vision field,’’ she said. ‘‘That’s just about what I can see. I can’t see faces, but I can see your shape, and your hair, and the color of your face.’’

That hasn’t stopped McKenzie from chasing down the things she wants.

The young woman has grown from a fearless child, who in spite of her limitations learned to not only ride a bicycle, but take it off a jump ramp. In order to do so, her parents spraypainted bright orange arrows for her to follow.

‘‘They worried a little, but at the same time, they never told me, ’No, you can’t do that because you can’t see it,’’’ she said. ‘‘They even let me try to play sports, but I figured out myself that was something I wasn’t good at. But they pushed me to my limits.’’

She now plays the tenor saxophone in the Co-Lin Blue Wave Marching Band, and has played the clarinet since she was in first-grade.

She said she is able to march with the band because the steps are choreographed, so as long as she stays on her count, and everyone else stays on theirs, it works out perfectly each time, and she can leave her walking stick behind.

It was McKenzie’s intrepid spirit that empowered her to compete in the Trillium Beauty Pageant last fall, a project that many girls in her situation would have avoided.

‘‘Before I walked up on stage, I counted the steps just like I do on the football field,’’ she said. ‘‘And I made sure that night that everything was right where it was when we practiced.’’

Just like a lot of young women in pageants for the first time, McKenzie said she loved the chance to get dressed up and look beautiful for the evening.

‘‘When you look good, you feel good,’’ said McKenzie, who did not place among the winners. ‘‘Even if you don’t win, do it because you enjoy it. When I look in the mirror, I can’t see myself, but that’s no reason not to look good for other people.’’

It’s all a part of the learning process of college, McKenzie said.

‘‘Most kids don’t realize that you can do things in college that you want to, that you never reamed of in high school,’’ she said. ‘‘It’s not so much about grades, it’s about new experiences. It’s about being in the beauty pageant because you want to, and because you can.’’

McKenzie said in the future, she hopes to get her business associate’s degree from Co-Lin and go on to major at the next level in orientation mobility for the vision- and hearing-impaired. But that’s not all.

‘‘My long-term goal is to enter the Methodist ministry as an ordained elder,’’ she said. ‘‘And I’d like to work as a military chaplain and use my orientation mobility to help wounded soldiers in addition to my duties as a chaplain.’’

Throughout her life so far, McKenzie said she has chosen to see her vision impairment as a blessing rather than a burden. She said, in a way that seems wise beyond her years, that it has helped her learn, as well as reach out to other people.

‘‘Some people that are visually impaired take that as a bad thing because they don’t want to be seen as helpless,’’ she said. ‘‘And what you find is that people want to help you, but they don’t know how. It was a challenge for me to learn to ask for help, but if you don’t ask, it makes things harder on you.’’

Mostly, McKenzie said, her message for other people with disabilities, as well as for those who don’t have them, is that like Winston Churchill said, ‘‘Failure isn’t fatal, it is the courage to continue that counts.’’

‘‘Just because you can’t do something one way doesn’t mean that you can’t do it,’’ she said. ‘‘It just means you have to find another way.’’