They had Tae McKenzie just after “hello.”
She was an 8-year-old who’d just moved, from Tacoma’s East Side to the Hilltop. She attended Stanley Elementary School. And right next door was the Al Davies Boys & Girls Club chapter.
“One day a couple of friends and I walked in. There was food and a lot of laughter, and that’s two of my favorite things – even if it’s just juice and Goldfish,” Tae said. “I made so many friends here.”
Now a 17-year-old senior at Lincoln High School, Tae still hangs out at the club. She does homework there and helps kids who are the same age she was when she first walked through the doors.
It wasn’t the crackers and juice that kept her coming.
Tae’s parents separated and her father moved to Seattle, leaving her with a single mom, Nicole, and a younger brother, Lamonte.
She wanted her father.
“I was really naive, and I believed if I just talked to him, if I said something, it would change things,” Tae said. “So one time when he visited, I remember sitting in the passenger seat of his car and just pouring my heart out. I stepped up. I cried.
“The response was empty promises. He was going to try harder. Nothing changed.”
At home, her mother knew what was happening.
“It was hard for me watching her deal with her father. She wanted her dad, and I saw her cry. I saw her wait for calls, for visits,” Nicole said. “About middle school, there was an emotional shift.”
Tae had grown up a bit by then, begun asserting herself at school, where she was the student body president at First Creek Middle School.
“I tried again to talk to my father. I was more assertive – I needed my father in my life.,” she said. “He reacted exactly the same way.
“After that, I’d done what I could do. I wasn’t the parent, I had no power to change things.”
Toni Whitehead, club program director – ‘Ms. Toni’ to everyone – had seen Tae growing up. She was hard to miss, Whitehead said.
“Some kids just stand out. She always wanted to help, but she was so quiet she usually did things in the background,” Whitehead said. “She was never loud, always smiling. I knew things were going on in her life, but I wasn’t sure what they were.”
Eventually, Tae confided in her – and found friends at Al Davies going through much the same thing.
“That helped, because we could all talk to each other,” she said.
At the club, she planned community barbecues for parents and staff. And once into high school, her mother said, Tae seemed to find her stride.
“I’m a big believer in the domino theory. If you can just impact one life, you never know how many more may be touched,” Tae said. “We came up with a phrase at school this year – “One city, one school, one love” – and put it on T-shirts. It’s all about taking care of your community, your friends.”
Tae wants to go to college and has applied everywhere from University of Washington Tacoma to University of Southern California, seeking financial help from each.
“This year, checking out scholarships and grants became a part-time job,” she said.
She entered the Boys & Girls Club of South Puget Sound Youth of the Year contest, which had an emphasis on speaking in public.
The night of the finals, Whitehead sat in the back trying to maintain self-control.
“When Tae won, I’d told myself I wasn’t going to jump up and scream – and I didn’t,” the club director said. “I cried.”
The victory qualified Tae for the state title, with competition in Seattle March 18-19. It also nailed down a $3,500 scholarship.
“That’s enough for books and transportation,” Tae said. “That’s one chunk taken care of!”
As for her father, he now has a second family in Seattle and a 3-year-old daughter he seems devoted to. Tae said she’s glad for her half sister, but seeing the relationship is painful.
“The more I invested, the more I got hurt. Lesson learned,” Tae said. “If I knew someone in the same situation, my advice would be my favorite quote: “Life is 10 percent what happens to you, and 90 percent how you react to it.’”Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638