Marnie MacKenzie at the birthplace of Helen Keller in Tuscumbia

Marnie MacKenzie at the birthplace of Helen Keller in Tuscumbia

Walking in Helen Keller’s footsteps

Marnie MacKenzie

Marnie MacKenzie remembers hearing about Helen Keller for the first time when she was about 15 when the film, The Miracle Worker, first came out in 1961.

“She showed me how to make the best of what you’ve got, despite your disabilities,” said MacKenzie, who has had sight and hearing issues since childhood and lost her sight due to retinitus pigmentosa when she was in her 30s.

She was inspired by Keller, who was deaf and blind since before she was two but went on to become a famous speaker and advocate for people with disabilities.

“Just because you are blind doesn’t mean you can’t do anything,” said MacKenzie, who worked in the family business in Vernon, MacKenzie’s Menswear, for 34 years. She was also active in skiing and is an enthusiastic supporter of the Do It for Dad fundraiser.

She was delighted last Christmas when her niece, Sanci Solbakken of Victoria, offered to take her to the Helen Keller Festival in Tuscumbia, Alabama, Keller’s birthplace. The three-day festival in June attracts thousands of people for an outdoor performance of The Miracle Worker, a variety of music, tours and a market. They also enjoyed the southern hospitality and regional specialties like ribbon fries and deep-fried dill pickles.

“I thought that instead of thinking we should do this someday, we should do it now,” said Solbrekken.

They enjoyed touring the area, with Solbrekken explaining where they were to her aunt.

“Because I was sighted, I can visualize,” said MacKenzie.

“I got so much enjoyment. We heard Helen Keller’s great-great-great-nieces and nephews sing in a church and there were a lot of music performances.”

Solbrekken said they particularly enjoyed Little Elvis, a man who has Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and was born with no legs and partially deaf, who is a singer and inspirational speaker.

“It was all inspirational. I remember that my mom and dad, Bette and Bill MacKenzie, went to an International Lions Convention in Chicago and heard Helen Keller speak. They were very impressed. Helen Keller was the one who challenged the Lions Clubs to work to help the vision-impaired in the 1920s and they still do,” said MacKenzie.

“Helen Keller showed me that there are many ways to learn, so it was a pleasure to be there where she was born. She taught me that you accept what you have and make the best of it. That’s what Helen did and that’s what I do. I can’t thank my niece enough that we got to go while I could still hear.”

The trip was a gift for Solbrekken as well.

“For me, it was special to be able to share that time with Marnie, knowing it was such a big inspiration in her life, to see that big grin on her face and to spend that time, just the two of us,” she said.

“Of course, I have known her all my life and been inspired by her but traveling together gave me the opportunity to see how she copes on a day-to-day basis and how capable she is.”

MacKenzie is already planning the next trip to the Helen Keller Festival and hopes to be able to take the rest of the family with her.