Claremont teen hero embraces volunteering in a special way

First in a 3-part series.  When the Los Angeles County Fair celebrates Claremont Day on Thursday, September 20, a fresh face will be shining among those honored as 2012 Claremont Community Heroes, that of 8th grader McKenna Maglio.

The Western Christian School student, who turns 14 this week, may be young, but she has already distinguished herself by volunteering extensively with people with disabilities. McKenna has spent the last several years working with special needs kids, both through the Thrive worship class and service her mother has instituted at Granite Creek Community Church and at AbilityFirst.

McKenna’s unique sensitivity towards disabled youth comes from her own experiences with her 11-year-old brother, Cameron, who has autism. She realized how much loving intervention can impact disabled children when Cameron began participating in social and recreational programs offered by AbilityFirst at the age of 5.

“After he started coming here, I noticed he was showing more fine motor skills. He was using the mouse on the computer and he was a lot faster writing his name,” she said.

Soon after, AbilityFirst instituted a new focus, encouraging clients with physical and developmental disabilities to interact with non-disabled kids to better learn to live and play in a mainstream environment. With this in mind, McKenna was enlisted at age 8 to participate in a new program called Swim Buddies. She began regularly joining AbilityFirst kids in the pool, often accompanied by her school friends, and quickly made a splash among the nonprofit’s staff through her caring ways and with clients for her love of fun.

As she got older, McKenna began to volunteer during AbilityFirst’s twice-monthly Friday recreation evenings, helping with enrichment activities like bingo, dances, bowling, barbecues and outings to destinations like Boomers and Quakes games. Again, the staff was amazed at how well McKenna interacted with AbilityFirst clients of all ages.

“A lot of kids are nervous or afraid, especially around people with physical disabilities,” said program supervisor Bonita Ramos. “We’ve got people in wheelchairs and some who are nonverbal. It didn’t faze her. She was helping feed people who needed help eating and didn’t seem to be nervous about anything.”

Most volunteers at AbilityFirst are 18 and older. However, when McKenna’s mom Jennifer asked if her daughter could begin volunteering with the center’s afterschool and summer programs, the staff had no qualms. After all, McKenna had already proved herself.

This past summer, McKenna volunteered at AbilityFirst 3 days a week, anywhere from 4 to 6 hours, helping supervise and engage kids ages 10-13 in activities like swimming, movies and a regular walk to Wheeler Park. With school back in session, she still tries to make it to AbilityFirst at least once a week.

AbilityFirst director Julie Martin raves about McKenna.

“She’s so positive. She’s always a ray of sunshine,” she said. “She fits the mold to be here—very caring, respectful, kind and considerate. She is the mold.”

It’s not easy being the brother or sister of someone with autism, and one can imagine that McKenna might want to escape the pressure at times. Instead, she strives to spend as much meaningful time as possible with Cameron and others like him.

Last Friday at AbilityFirst, McKenna could be seen stroking her brother’s hair and soothingly rocking him back and forth in between the many tasks she performs while volunteering. Some of her desire to help comes from the fact that so many people have assisted her family, she said.

“We’ve had a lot of help, like other family members watching Cameron so my mom can go shopping or finish work or so my parents can get away,” she said.

Considering her devotion to kids with disabilities, you might think the teen plans to become a special education teacher or some kind of therapist. In fact, McKenna—who loves crime shows like CSI—dreams of being a detective. Perhaps it’s the influence of her dad, who got a degree in criminal justice, though he ended up working in an unrelated field.  

She will pursue her first step towards this goal, summer camp with the Claremont Police Department’s Explorers program, next year. Though her interests continue to expand, AbilityFirst staff and clients shouldn’t fear losing one of their favorite volunteers just yet. The camp only lasts a week, and she plans to be back volunteering throughout the summer once more.

There’s a certain maturity that comes with being the big sister of a special needs child, but McKenna is quick to emphasize that she is still a kid. During her recent interview, she shared that she was looking forward to her birthday outing, a group trip to see Finding Nemo in 3-D.

She is also looking forward to getting some funnel cake, complete with iced cream and whipped topping, at the Los Angeles County Fair, a craving she indulges each year at the fair and every chance she gets. As a Claremont Hero honoree, the day will also include new experiences like box seats at the horse race, a luncheon with local dignitaries, the 5 o’clock parade and a 5:30 p.m. awards ceremony.

While she is pleased to be recognized for the time she spends with people she cares about, helping out comes naturally to McKenna.

“I’ve thought about it before—what would I be doing if Cameron was a typical 11 year old? We can guess, but we don’t really know,” she said.

—Sarah Torribio


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