Helping young people realize their full potential
While a life-sized marble angel graces McKenzie Noelle Wilson’s final resting place, the spirit of the compassionate 15-year-old lives on through the foundation that carries her name, nurturing both orphaned children in Africa and the educational endeavors of underserved students in Jacksonville.
When McKenzie, a sophomore at The Bolles School, suddenly passed away after a rare and sudden illness on August 17, 2010, more than 1,800 mourners celebrated her life during a funeral service at Beach United Methodist Church in Jacksonville Beach. Regarded as “the sweetest little angel,” by many in the community, her family felt impelled to establish the McKenzie Noelle Wilson Foundation as lasting way honor her and keep her memory alive.
“The desire to keep her legacy and light alive was immediate to all the people who were close to her,” explained Adrian Gibbs, director of the McKenzie Noelle Wilson Foundation. “She was such a compelling young person. So many people were touched, and they all wanted to do something then and there.”
It had been McKenzie’s dream to someday help orphaned babies in Africa, an aspiration she had shared with her two best friends, Grace Marrese and Sarah Bates. As McKenzie lay dying in her hospital room, family members and many friends, including her two besties, were reluctant to leave her side, said Gibbs. To help comfort the two girls, Grace’s mother made a couple of beaded bracelets for them to wear, and when McKenzie passed away, everyone who had waited at the hospital, as well as her friends on the Bolles softball team and cheerleading squad, wanted one of those bracelets, Gibbs said. “The girls would say, ‘For the babies in Africa. For McKenzie.’ And that’s where Liv-N-Grace jewelry was born.”
Beaded jewelry became the foundation’s first fundraising effort when Marla Marrese and her daughters, Grace and Olivia (Liv), joined McKenzie’s mother, Stephanie, in creating more bracelets and selling them to support the foundation. “Liv-N-Grace jewelry was created to help heal while also honoring McKenzie. Each piece of jewelry is handcrafted and unique. One hundred percent of all proceeds go to the foundation,” said Blake Wilson, McKenzie’s father.
McKenzie’s dream of helping African orphans has been realized by the support her foundation has given to the Okoa Refuge Orphanage in Uganda, which was founded by Tyler and Liv Workman, members of the Church of Eleven 22, where the Wilson family worships, said Gibbs.
McKenzie’s foundation has built three new dormitories for the orphanage, and, in partnership with the Okoa Refuge, provides medical care, food, shelter, education and love to more than 80 girls, boys, and babies who live at Amaka ga McKenzie (McKenzie’s Home in Ugandan), said Wilson. “These facilities provide care consistent of a boys’ home, a girls’ home, and an abandoned baby home and come with a staff that gives love and care to these orphaned children. The foundation has committed $250,000 to Okoa’s ‘Child Sponsorship Fund’ over five years, ensuring that no child is turned away,” he continued.
“As a family we have traveled to Amaka ga McKenzie. It was so inspiring and encouraging to love on the children living in the orphanage. McKenzie’s life completely changed the trajectory of those children’s lives. That brings my family so much joy and hope,” he said.
The calling card for the McKenzie Noelle Wilson Foundation is its mantra – Caring, Giving, Growing. “Just as McKenzie was committed to caring, giving, and growing, the foundation seeks to embody these three ideas in helping young people realize their full potential,” said Wilson, who as foundation CEO serves with his wife, Stephanie, foundation president.
“The foundation’s mission is to help young people recognize their full potential by providing programs that encourage caring for others, giving to those in need, and growing in their own spirituality. McKenzie had a loving and caring spirit, especially for those in need. Everything we do is dedicated to continuing to live out her life and continue her legacy.”
Locally, the foundation has set up and fully funded McKenzie’s Academic Resource Centers (MARC) to serve students of all ages within two residential communities, Portside Mobile Home Community and Countryside Village. The academic centers are housed in buildings provided rent-free within the subdivisions by community developer RHP Properties, said Gibbs. Presently the MARC facilities serve over 300 at-risk youth by offering academic tutoring, mentoring, and developmental programs for students of all ages.
“The centers build a bridge between the classroom and community by connecting teachers, tutors, mentors, and volunteers to our students,” Wilson said. In addition, MARC students can attend Kamp Kenzie, a six-week summer camp that provides enrichment and fun activities, he said.
The foundation’s main fundraiser, McKenzie’s Run, was initiated three months after her death and boasted a field of more than 4,000 in November 2017. The race begins at TIAA Bank Field and includes a 5K walk/run and 1-mile run. “McKenzie’s Run is one of the main ways our foundation works to unite our community, while simultaneously raising support and awareness about the foundation,” said Wilson.
As of February 2017, the McKenzie Noelle Wilson Foundation has committed $1 million over four years to MARC. Through this commitment, the foundation is partnering with Goodwill Industries of North Florida Career Services, which will focus on the operations and resource provisions of the MARC programs. The goal is to have MARC students get better grades, graduate high school, and excel in college or in the vocational opportunities they decide to pursue.
The association with Goodwill includes a partnership with Take Stock in Children Duval, a student mentoring and college scholarship program, as well as its A-STEP program, which is aimed at providing support for adults pursuing sustainable careers.
“I’ve been personally impacted by the power of mentoring. It was always on my heart to empower others and help them reach their full potential. McKenzie’s life and legacy has provided the ground to create something incredibly special,” he said.
McKenzie Clubs, for middle and high school students, began at The Bolles School when McKenzie’s friends decided to continue her inclination to do “random acts of kindness,” said Gibbs. The concept has grown, and McKenzie Clubs currently exist at Bolles Middle and High School, where McKenzie’s younger brother, Oliver, serves as president, Paxon School for Advanced Studies, Stanton College Preparatory School, Providence School, Episcopal School of Jacksonville, and Ponte Vedra High School, said Gibbs.
“McKenzie Clubs unite and mobilize middle and high school students to care for others through volunteerism and charitable involvement,” said Wilson, adding that club members participate in foundation activities, host fundraising events on “Teal Day” in March, which is McKenzie’s birthday month, help mentor students at MARC, and spread love throughout the community through the foundation’s “Random Acts of Kindness” campaign.
“The purpose of our clubs is to spread kindness,” said Gibbs, adding the campaign is a way to get students to think outside of themselves and get involved in philanthropy by giving back to the community through acts of service. “That is the heartbeat behind McKenzie Clubs,” she said.
Wilson agreed. “The support the McKenzie Noelle Wilson Foundation receives from McKenzie Club students around Jacksonville is incredible. They are what fuels us,” he said. “They’re what keeps the foundation thriving and exciting. Club members are really what continues to keep the life and legacy of McKenzie alive.”