Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 says life is better with community, noting that two are better than one and if one falls down, one can help the other up.
There is also an often-repeated African proverb that teaches it takes a village to raise a child.
The McKenzie family of Baywood is living testament that there is validity in both phrases.
Bryan and Julia McKenzie have a family that is both supportive of each other and large in number, not to mention the children hail from multiple countries.
They have 12 children: four biologically and eight by adoption.
Among the eight adoptees, four still live at home and are enrolled at Cape Fear High School, where they are all involved in athletics.
“We’re our own village,” says Bryan McKenzie.
Son Brice McKenzie and daughter Hannah McKenzie are both from Ethiopia. Daughter Abby Grace McKenzie is Thai, while son John Bryan McKenzie is from Guatemala.
The question many might ask is why the McKenzies have felt the need to gather such a large group of children from so many ethnic backgrounds.
Julia McKenzie has a simple answer.
“Faith in God is what created our family,” she says, adding that she and Bryan are nondenominational Christians.
“God really brought every child we adopted,” Julia says. “It was just a natural progression. We never planned to have 12 children. That wasn’t a goal we set.”
Each child, through a different process, found his or her way into the McKenzie clan, Julia says.
John Bryan came to the family at the age of 9 months. Abby Grace was born at Cape Fear Valley Medical Center.
Brice and Hannah joined the family at the ages of 6 and 4, respectively.
Julia says from the first time the children ran into the family’s backyard, they just grabbed onto each other.
“They were a little pack,” she says. “They’ve been a team since the day they met.
“They’re not just brothers and sisters. They’re best friends.”
But Julia is not blind to the fact that her children did not become her family without experiencing pain.
“Adoption is a double-edged sword,” she says. “There was a great loss for them to be here, a great loss in their life. That’s something they overcome every day. Each one of them has their own story, and each one of them deals with their own story in a different way.”
One pursuit that all the children actively embrace and make new stories with is the avenue of sports competition at Cape Fear High School.
“I think sports has been such a positive way for them to work through any feeling that they had, to be part of a positive group of kids. And their coaches are phenomenal,” says Julia. “They are surrounded by such great people that have given them so many opportunities.”
The support goes beyond sports. Hannah and Brice both arrived in America with no English language skills. The Cape Fear education community helped them overcome that problem.
“This school district has embraced our family,” Julia says. “Everyone in the administration, all the teachers, every coach. We’ve never had a negative experience. They’ve loved and supported our kids and accepted our family.”
But not everything has been perfect. Even in the United States in 2023, some people have narrow minds and misguided ideas about race and culture and how they intermingle.
Julia remembers earlier times, when the children were younger and the whole family would go out to eat at a restaurant. They frequently got looks and stares at their table, which was filled with what looked like a humanity rainbow.
Julia remembers a visit to a pizza parlor when another patron kept casting curious glances at the McKenzie family. Finally, daughter Abby Grace, who was about 7 at the time, turned and said, “If you want to ask us a question, ask us a question.”
A basketball player as well as a varsity cheerleader, Abby Grace grew up playing sports and says she had no trouble assimilating into life at Cape Fear.
“They care that we’re different races,” she says. “They accept all of us. That’s what I love about playing sports. They don’t really care what color you are or where you come from.”
Hannah, who also is a cheerleader, agrees.
“I’ve never felt not included,” she says. “I’ve always felt welcome by my family and my peers. I never interacted with anybody giving me a dirty look or anything.”
‘It’s beautiful to see’
Amey Shook, who coaches the Cape Fear cheerleaders, said both Abby Grace and Hannah work well with their teammates and bring laughter, fun, hard work and dedication to what they do.
She says the McKenzies are a wonderful family who have opened their hearts to their children.
“Their kids love them, and they love their kids,” she says. “It’s beautiful to see.”
But when the dirty looks come, Julia says, the family tries to get something positive from the experience.
“It gave us an opportunity to have conversations with our kids about racism, about diversity, how some people make you feel,” Julia says. “You get the opportunity to grow up and say, ‘You’re staring at my family.’”
Julia adds that the children love that their family is different.
“It’s never been anything but natural to have open conversations,” she says. “We just always have been communicators.
“I’ve looked at every bit of racism we’ve encountered and every negative as an opportunity for growth and conversation.”
On the football field, John Bryan and Brice are looking out for each other in a real sense. They are both members of the Cape Fear football team. John Bryan plays in the offensive line, providing blocking and pass protection for Brice, who is the starting quarterback this year.
Brice says when he first arrived in America, he didn’t really like it here. He was a soccer player in Ethiopia, but that eventually changed.
“Once I got to know football, I just started liking it,” he says. “You’ve got to be a part of it, all in. That’s what family is like too.”
John Bryan agrees.
“They all know we are a team,” he says. “We all care about each other. They don’t ever discriminate.”
Cape Fear football coach Jake Thomas is amazed at how the McKenzie children come from different countries and ethnic backgrounds yet have all developed positive attitudes and are just good people.
“They have good family support,” Thomas says. “At home, they do a good job of giving them what they need and making them feel loved.”
Thomas adds that the McKenzie family is collectively supportive of Cape Fear High School.
Teamwork at home
The teamwork continues at home every day as the family members get ready to go their separate ways each morning.
“They ask each other, ‘Have you got your water bottle? Have you got your backpack?’” Julia says. “They are constantly asking what to do to help out.”
“Our house is a family,” says Bryan. “We’re all teammates, no matter what we’re doing. We’re like a bag of Skittles. We’re McKenzies.”
Of course, having four teenagers involved in sports means a busy schedule of turning out for games for the McKenzie parents, as well as the other siblings who have grown up, moved out and started their own families.
“We don’t miss a game,” Julia says. “Wherever they go, they all want to follow.”
Sometimes the couple have to split up to cover all the contests when there are scheduling conflicts, and they get plenty of support from the older siblings along with multiple nieces and nephews.
“One of the greatest joys is to go see your child perform,” says Bryan, a former Cape Fear football player. “To see the other children sitting beside you in the stands, rooting them on. You know what you’re doing is a positive, if you can blend 12 lives that weren’t together and they become a family.
“We are proud of who they are, who we are and the God we serve.”
In the end, Julia says, the thing that makes it all worthwhile is seeing each child find the thing he or she wants to do in life and shining at it.
“There are so many kids that need an opportunity to be loved and valued,” she says.
She encourages others to do the same.
“It will be the hardest, most beautiful thing they ever do, but the beauty outweighs the hard.”
“We walked through hell to get these children to today, but we would walk through it again.”
Follow Earl Vaughan Jr. on Twitter: @EarlVaughanJr.