Just over nine years ago, a personal tragedy galvanized the community around 11-year-old Mackenzie Saunders after the then-Kyrene Akimel A-al Middle School student was partially paralyzed from the waist down after being hit in the back during a soccer game.
Now, the Ahwatukee woman’s cheerful spirit and leadership galvanizes a community at Arizona State University, which honored her for the second consecutive year with a Pitchfork award – a recognition given students, advisors and organizations for personal and organizational leadership, collaboration and a commitment to better campus life.
Naming her Outstanding Undergraduate Student Leader, award organizers said the soon-to-be-a-junior “limitlessly leads others with a smile on her face.”
As president this year of the Vista Community Council, award organizers said, “Mackenzie serves as a leader and role model to students through her work in the upper division on-campus housing community and continues to empower and inspire those around her every day.”
Saunders, who is majoring in both politics and the economy and justice studies, also is a speech and debate coach for Phoenix Country Day School.
The daughter of Liz and Gary Saunders, she was class president as well as the president of the speech and debate club when she graduated Desert Vista High in 2016.
She hasn’t forgotten her alma mater either, having helped coach Desert Vista High School’s nationally recognized speech and debate team this year.
It was in December 2009 when she sustained her injury, sending shockwaves through Ahwatukee.
After 34 days in various hospitals, she returned home, relying on a walker and a wheelchair to get around.
Today, she is looking to a future that might put her in the footsteps of Barry Goldwater and John McCain.
“I would love to go to law school after I graduate to someday be a government relations attorney,” she said. “I want to get into politics later in life. Being a senator somewhere is my main dream for my career path.”
The activity that won her the Pitchfork award is kind of a start.
“Being Vista Community Council president has been such a wonderful experience,” Saunders said. ““Through outreach, programs and advocacy initiatives, my council has done a great job encouraging community engagement within Vista. This job has been a huge time commitment, but I am so happy to have held such a challenging yet impactful leadership position.”
Saunders also works as a government relations and legal intern for CIMA Law Group, a Phoenix law firm and has been working with the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication “by taking performance studies classes and participating in community performances throughout the year.”
“I have been having such a blast being so involved with so many different activities this year,” she said, adding that she didn’t seek a second term as Vista Community Council president so she could find a part-time job, coach the debate team and focus on her studies.
Given that it was not even two years ago when she was getting ready to put on a cap and gown at Desert Vista’s commencement exercises, Saunders has some advice for this year’s graduating class based on the first two years of her university career.
“I would advise high school graduates to get involved and follow their passions with extracurriculars,” she said. “Being involved is the most fulfilling thing in the world.”