BREAKING BARRIERS AND GIVING BACK
Role models come in a variety of demographics, and some people demonstrate leadership skills at an early age.
At a youthful 25 years old, McKenzie McCulloch — he also goes by Ken — is proud of his many achievements, including his recent Member of the Year Award from the Heart of Oregon Corps. McCulloch, who has autism, has overcome many obstacles in his young life and prides himself in his personal growth over the past eight years when he first began his journey in the working world.
According to Laura Handy, Executive Director for the Heart of Oregon Corps, McCulloch was recognized for his efforts by YouthBuild USA. YouthBuild USA is the National Association of YouthBuild programs across the country which supports nominations from all its affiliate programs for a national YouthBuild/AmeriCorps member of the year.
She added that McCulloch was the nominee from the Heart of Oregon Corps level. The award is referred to as the Spirit of Service Award, and in October, he will be recognized along with other nominees on YouthBuild USA social media channels.
McCulloch’s primary service came in building affordable housing. During his time with YouthBuild, he helped build two connected town homes through Sisters Habitat for Humanity, and has also worked with the Veterans Village project — building smaller shelter units for veterans in Bend.
“Ken is definitely contributing to two permanent residential homes, plus all of these Veterans Village units that really need to address critical homelessness among the veteran population,” Handy said.
Other AmeriCorps service projects that McCulloch has been part of include Harmony Farms and Seed to Table, Madras Thrift Shop, and Warm Springs Disposal. He also spent time with AmeriCorps for the Prineville natural resource crew in 2018 — where he put in 900 hours of service — while he’s donated 450 hours in his current role with YouthBuild. He recently earned his BOLI Pre-Apprentice Certificate for entry-level construction skills. The certificate allows him direct entry access to various apprenticeship programs across the state.
McCulloch was diagnosed with autism at an early age but has demonstrated an amazing ability to push himself and make constant personal growth. Overcoming barriers is something that McCulloch is no stranger to, and he continually pushes to not only better himself, but help others around him. Simple things like making eye contact are a struggle for McCulloch sometimes, and working with new people in different settings can also present challenges.
“Just do what you have to do and make the best of it for what is possible out there right now,” McCulloch said.
YouthBuild Program Director Kara Johnson described McCulloch’s dedication to community service this way: “His willingness to learn is intricately linked to his love of service. Despite living with autism, Ken self-advocates to engage wholeheartedly in the social and physical work that is required of folks serving their communities. Our staff has witnessed Ken show up every day not just for himself, but for his community.”
“He has always exceeded our expectations,” said McKenzie’s father, Mike McCulloch. “He communicates really well.”
Mike was part of the original crew from Deschutes County who founded Heart of Oregon, before handing it off to the current nonprofit. He is no stranger to working with juveniles with challenges and understands the importance of teaching youth work skills at an early age.
His mother has seen the benefits of McKenzie’s efforts.
“He is an independent like his mom and dad. We like to do things ourselves,” said Deb McCulloch. “We have seen him break barrier after barrier.”
McKenzie also has incredible talent as a radio DJ. He has served every Sunday at KPOV Community Radio for the past six years and also worked for Bend Radio Group at KSJJ102.9 before the pandemic hit.
“I think community service is important, being how our world isn’t in 2019 anymore and it is going to be a while for things to return to normal,” he said.“I am the only autistic radio DJ (in Central Oregon) and know that I am a role model to other people with challenges. I love music and I share my music, too.”
During his community service with KPOV on weekends, McCulloch does theme shows in tribute to music artists who died in the past year, as well women artists and holiday theme shows. He does a cultural live segment in the mornings during his holiday shows and is also learning to do radio news.
“I am very good at teamwork, too,” emphasized McCulloch. “Joining AmeriCorps for young people is really pretty cool.”