Mackenzie’s Gift

Excelsior helps one teenager overcome years of struggle to find the hope, inspiration and confidence needed to follow her dreams.

Mackenzie with her photograph showcased at the Denver Art Museum

Now a bright, smiling young woman, Mackenzie has a clear focus on her future – a talented photographer, she dreams of opening her own studio someday. Mackenzie has found her gift – photography – and at just 21-years-old, she’s well on her way to achieving her dream.

But Mackenzie didn’t always have such high hopes for her future.

This is her story:

At a young age, Mackenzie began acting out in a worrisome way – she was impulsive and aggressive, presenting unsafe behaviors that landed her in Children’s Hospital. Doctors determined Mackenzie was suffering from anxiety and depression in addition to her diagnosis of autism.

When Mackenzie was released from the hospital, she was not yet safe enough to return home, so she moved into a residential treatment facility when she spent the next two years. After successfully transitioning out of treatment, Mackenzie gladly returned home.

Unfortunately, at home she found herself faced with new difficulties. Her dad was suffering from FTD (Frontotemporal Dementia), a rare disorder related to Alzheimer’s which strained the entire family. On top of that, Mackenzie’s brother, whom had been a huge support to her through it all, left for college – a transition that felt hugely disruptive to Mackenzie’s life.

Mackenzie began acting out again – she fought with her mom constantly, ran away from home and reverted back to old habits of aggression and self-harm.

Another of Mackenzie’s photographs at the Denver Art Museum

Fortunately, Mackenzie was then referred to Excelsior. She began in respite care, meaning she lived at Excelsior for brief periods when she was unsafe at home. Soon she successfully transitioned to a lower level of care with Excelsior’s community-based services. This did the trick – Mackenzie loved being able to live with her family while having a therapist available to help her navigate difficult times.

Reentering school was one of those times. Mackenzie’s autism made school difficult, from the learning to the socializing, but her therapist taught her to trust herself and helped her realize that could do so much more than she ever imagined. Additionally, Mackenzie’s therapist helped her identify the triggers that led to her unsafe behaviors, and implement coping strategies to manage them. Without the help of Excelsior and her therapist, Mackenzie doesn’t think she would have graduated high school.

Perhaps most importantly, her therapist helped repair Mackenzie’s relationship with her mom by teaching them both positive communication skills and healthy boundaries. Their therapist coached Mackenzie’s mom on how to give her teenage daughter the space she needed, while instilling in in Mackenzie the importance of showing her mom respect and appreciation.

Mackenzie with her service dog, Mickey

Now, Mackenzie absolutely glows when she talks about her mom – she commented that the two of them are “super tight” which is incredible after so many years of butting heads. Mackenzie recognizes the importance of this type of togetherness when looking back on her experience: “Everyone needs to come together. If some people come together and others don’t, we can’t get help.” It’s a family affair to be sure.

Now 21 years old, Mackenzie is a beautiful, compassionate young woman with a bright future.  An animal-lover, she volunteers at the Denver Dumb Friends League. In fact, when she’s not out shooting photographs, Mackenzie can be found doting on her dog, Mickey, a trained service dog who helps her navigate the world with autism.