Makenzie’s love of animals, especially zebras and penguins, started from a very young age.
“Makenzie is a twin and when my daughters were born, a friend of mine gave me a stuffed zebra and a monkey,” said her mom, Karen. “Makenzie loved the zebra and her sister, Amelia, loved the monkey and they carried them everywhere we went ever since.”
As the girls grew older, so did their affinity for their favorite animals. It wasn’t until they were in kindergarten that Karen began to notice something was wrong.
“Amelia’s teacher noticed that she was having vision problems, and after several eye tests that showed no signs of anything, we went to Phoenix Children’s Hospital and they said Amelia was legally blind,” Karen said.
“We were researching Amelia’s diagnosis when we learned both girls have the same fatal neuro-degenerative disorder. I was completely caught off guard that Makenzie had it, too,” she continued. “Their disorder is extremely rare, only two other kids have it in Arizona, and the symptoms lead to loss of vision, speech and motor functions.”
While the effects of Makenzie’s disease are not as severe as her sister’s, she has some impairment to her vision and she is unable to see color.
“I’m not sure if it’s a coincidence that her favorite animals are black and white, it might be something about the contrast, but she loves zebras and penguins more than anything,” said Karen.
“Makenzie also faces short term memory loss, another effect of the disease, but she loves to memorize and recite animal facts so she’s still learning and defying the odds. She already knows nearly everything about zebras and recently she’s become really interested in penguins.”
When Karen’s sister-in-law referred both daughters for a wish, Karen wasn’t sure what Makenzie would wish for because she is very shy. But it was no surprise to her that both children chose a wish related to animals.
“Makenzie has a quest to meet all the different kinds of penguins... and a zebra of course,” said Karen. “We already visited the east coast to see Blue Fairy penguins and Makenzie pet a Macaroni penguin last year, but the last penguin Makenzie had yet to meet was an Emperor penguin.”
With this in mind, Makenzie and her family traveled to California, where they spent a week at SeaWorld and San Diego Zoo. Because Makenzie struggles with her vision, the trainers and staff went above and beyond to make sure Makenzie could see and feel the animals up close.
“Makenzie can still see, but she sees best when things are near her nose. After watching the dolphin show at SeaWorld, we were invited to go behind the scenes for a surprise encounter just for Makenzie,” said Karen. “Makenzie was able to see the dolphins right up against the glass and feed them fish!”
“Then, we went inside a special penguin enclosure where Makenzie could meet and touch the penguins. We had been to SeaWorld before, but this time was so special. I loved seeing the look on her face and it was beautiful to watch not only Makenzie, but Amelia too, having fun and feeling so happy and excited.”
At San Diego Zoo, Makenzie was able to have special encounters with a giraffe, an okapi and a zebra, where she learned a new fun fact for her trivia.
“When Makenzie touched the zebra, she was surprised because the white and black stripes feel different from one another,” said Karen. “Zebras and penguins are definitely her favorite, but Makenzie loves all animals and wants to be a veterinarian when she grows up. She hugged all the animals and I don’t think she could pick a favorite part if she wanted to; she loved all of it.”
Karen and her family will always cherish the memories made on Makenzie’s wish, but now they are looking forward to Amelia’s upcoming wish because they know it is more than ‘just a trip’.
“As a parent, it is so difficult for me to accept the reason why my daughters are receiving a wish and the realities of their condition. But it was so wonderful to take a trip where we didn’t have to think and watching them smile actually made me forget why we were there.”