Mackenzie Garcia realized at a young age that she prefers to give rather than to receive.

"You feel it in a different spot in your heart, when you give," she said. "It feels really good."

For her kindness and generosity in helping children who are displaced from their homes for reasons that include foster care, illness, homelessness and natural disaster, Mackenzie, an eighth-grader at Lewis-Palmer Middle School, is a Colorado Springs Hometown Hero.

"I was shocked," the 14-year-old said, when she learned that she had won the youth category of this year's American Red Cross awards. "It's really cool because a principal nominated me; it wasn't my mom or my friend's mom."

Mackenzie deserves to be recognized for her Operation P.J. project, said Peggy Griebenow, principal at Palmer Lake Elementary School, who recommended Mackenzie for the award.

"This is her fourth year in taking on this endeavor, and I think it speaks to her commitment to give back to her community as a child and now as an adolescent," Griebenow said. "She's really invested in making the place where she lives a better place."

Operation P.J. started after Mackenzie was asked at a public dinner in the fifth grade, "If you were in a place you didn't know and with people you didn't know, what would you want?"

She answered, "New, comfy jammies."

Her favorite thing to do always has been to come home and put on pajamas. It used to be Dora the Explorer, and now it's house pants and a T-shirt.

Regardless, "Everyone should feel the joy new pajamas bring, especially children who are going through a tough time," Mackenzie believes.

She started by collecting new pajamas from family and friends in November to give out in December. Donations grew as word spread.

The project became affiliated with a nonprofit her mom had started to help victims of the Black Forest fire, Helping Everyone Recover Colorado.

"The first year, I aimed for 200 new pajamas, and we got 300," Mackenzie said.

She collected about 450 this past Christmas season, for newborns up to 18 year olds.

But jammies are donated year-round, and she's getting ready to make another distribution. She and her mom, Racquel Garcia, recently sorted pajamas in their house outside Palmer Lake.

All kinds and sizes of jammies with movie themes, bright patterns and messages such as "Spread Some Love," filled the dining room table.

"One little boy was talking about how cool his new jammies were going to be," Mackenzie said, as she reminisced about handing them out to children.

Each District 38 school has a collection bin in November and churches, military installations and individuals throughout southern Colorado have contributed, Mackenzie said.

One of the best parts has been getting to see kids' reactions, such as at Family Promise of Colorado Springs, which shelters homeless families and the Ronald McDonald House, which houses families of sick children.

"They'll run back into their rooms and change into them right away," Mackenzie said.

It hasn't been easy. Mackenzie was bullied at school when she started the project as a fifth-grader.

"She is more of a quiet, behind-the-scenes person - this was not something she did because she was looking for any recognition," Griebenow said. "It was truly about her realizing she had a good life and there were other kids who didn't come from as great of home situations. She wanted to provide them with something they could call their own."

But Mackenzie soldiered on, and has made a career decision based on her community service. She wants to work with people who are disabled and is thinking about evolving Operation P.J. by throwing a pajama party for children with disabilities, featuring donated new pajamas.

"It's become something bigger," Garcia said. "We have companies who call wanting to donate. People want to give."

She encourages other parents to listen to ideas their children have.

As Mackenzie says: "Everything that's big now had to start with a little idea. There's more people out there who are willing to support you. Just go for it."


Staff reporter, education and general news and features

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