I came to know Mike Burnside and his special needs daughter, Kenzi, on social media. I haven’t yet “met” his wife, Janet, but have learned a lot about this wonderful family, their love of the outdoors and their commitment to their children. Since I am interested by how people cope with non-negotiable change, I wanted to interview Mike. He very graciously accepted and his comments are below. It’s well worth the read. You will be inspired! —Laura
Q: Mike tell us a little about yourself and your family.
A: I do environmental inspections, lead based paint, radon, etc. I have a degree in construction management, but made a decision when we found out about Kenzi that I’d become self employed because of the flexibility it offers. I switched 24 years ago. You can do whatever you want the other twelve hours of the day! We’re in NE Oklahoma, north of Tulsa OK.
I grew up in the outdoors, fishing and hunting and my wife, Janet, grew up on a dairy farm and was used to the outdoors. We got the kids involved when Kenzi was 3-4 years old; we took her fishing. Fishing is her favorite thing. Thankfully we live on 80 acres and have two ponds here. Janet is a flight attendant for American Airlines. When mom’s gone we would go fishing. That’s added a whole new level of involvement when your spouse is gone for four days at a time!
Kenzi has Cerebral Palsy. We had triplets: Kenzi, our son and the son who passed away after five days. The official diagnoses for Kenzi happened when she was 18 months. She’s the toughest person in my eyes. She’s had double hip surgery several times to correct the scissoring action where one leg goes in front of the other. Spinal surgery clipped nerves in her spine. The last surgery, she had rods put along her spine from her neck to her tailbone. She can do anything she wants to once this heals.
We’d go to Six Flags over Texas and, like me when I was young, Kenzi loved the double loop roller coaster. I’d keep her head steady on the ride. Then she asked, “Hold my arms up like those people!” I say, “Dad’s getting too old for this!” On the rides, when you can’t lean it’s a whole different experience. After the rods were added, she didn’t want to go on the rides anymore because it was a whole different feeling.
Q: How do you all do it, Mike?
A: We don’t know any other way. (Laura’s note: this is a profound perspective for coping with non-negotiable change.)
Q: Tell us how Kenzi got started in hunting and fishing.
A: Kenzi got her turkey first when she was 15. I’m on the banquet committee for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation Tulsa Chapter. I took the family to the banquet starting when Kenzi was 3 years old. She won a youth shotgun at one of the banquets. Then they offered to take her turkey hunting. One member had land. She got a turkey after a long wait. A few years ago, Holy Pursuits Dream Foundation contacted me and asked us to fill out an application. They take people with a disability on a dream hunt. The next day they called to say she’s approved. She settled on a mule deer hunt. I realized it would be a major undertaking, find an outfitter who could handle the logistics in that short of a time. They knew it would be a tough situation.
I asked her, “If it doesn’t work out do you want to go white tail hunting with Dad on our property?” We couldn’t pull the dream hunt off that fall, there just wasn’t enough time. In the meantime, the weekend before Thanksgiving Kenzi was doing the Tulsa Run for Ansley’s Angels, where disabled individuals are pushed in their chairs. She was going to be pushed in a marathon 26 miles. She was in that chair for six to seven hours. They have teams of people who run and push and live to see the satisfaction on so many faces.
Then we got a call; there was a child who couldn’t make a hunt, but Kenzi had the marathon, and there was a lot going on. But we got there and she hunted like the biggest trooper you ever saw. She got up at 4 am and it’s cold in Illinois. The place is a tremendous hunting area. She used a Vacuum Air Actuator. It’s got a 12 volt battery, a tube to suck on. The vacuum changes the electrical signal. It mounts on the trigger guard and fires the trigger itself. The weapon will not fire until Kenzi sucks on that tube. The biggest challenge is to hold the tube for her so when she’s ready, it’s steady. She made it happen the last 30 minutes that evening and shot one white tail deer. She was so happy to put meat in the freezer and contribute to the family.
First thing we did when we got back, we had spaghetti with her deer meat because she wanted to eat some right away. The following week we were out on our land. I had to purchase the vacuum actuator for us. An eight point buck came out and she shot it. She was so excited she was beside herself. She was filling the freezer to help out the family. She also got to do her mule deer hunt in Wyoming and got a buck outside Cheyenne.
Another foundation had seen a video of Kenzi’s hunt and they contacted me. They had us come to the Texas panhandle. It was a Disabled Youth and Military Veterans Foundation. She got a Barbary Sheep. They’re called the poor man’s bighorn. They live in rocky areas. WW Two GI’s brought them back to Texas. They flourished out there. They’re a neat looking animal. She got a big ram. They range from eastern NM to the West Texas panhandle and SW Oklahoma. They love rough country, canyons, cliffs, etc. Last fall she got another white tail.
I did a video of her hunt and a social media person contacted me saying, “I’m just crying watching this video!” She shared it to the corporate pages she manages and it has been viewed 4-5 million times. Kenzi said, “Call Mom, Call Mom!” She loves to provide. It’s the same when we go fishing. “Is this my fish?” she’d ask when we’re fixing fish.
Q: How does leadership have a bearing on your work and the things you’re passionate about.
A: It’s all about the principles we develop. Once you’re out of college and in the corporate world they want you to move up into management. I’ve applied those principles in life too. Before we had children, me and my brother would go on hunts. Our hunts are all do it yourself. We’d go to Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska. Others would say, “I can’t do that.” But you’ve got to develop those confidence traits. People are inspired by Kenzi’s horseback riding and running in the races.
What do we want to do with Kenzi’s life? I want to fill her with memories. At some point, we may fail, but we’ll learn from those failures. Like anything in life — volunteering for a charity, helping others — leads to personal growth. Making a difference for any individual transfers to anything you’ll do in life. They may not have confidence in themselves, but this will help them build it. When it comes to resources and time management, we can’t do it all. But if you have an “I’m going to make it happen attitude” you’ll learn from your mistakes.
Q: What lessons have you learned over the years that others would benefit from?
A: Don’t chase things, chase memories. That comes with age. Avoid the feeling that you need to have this or that. If you’ve got a child or person with disabilities, do those things that make you both happy. Don’t be afraid to ask for information from somebody who has special needs or from someone who is older. Ask them about resources. Find the people who have been through your situation and ask them. Ninety nine times out of a hundred they’re going to help you. I wish there was a manual for special needs. It’s overwhelming at first. We’ve thought about writing a book. The Pandemic has reinforced we have more time. We’re trying to get to that point so now it’s a matter of sitting down and writing. We’ve got a chapter written by me and also by my wife so we get two different perspectives. It’s God nudging us to keeping on exploring the possibility of the book.
One more thing: Kenzi went to a special needs school Christian-based nondenominational school in Tulsa. They’ve been in operation since 1976. It’s called The Little Light House (https://www.littlelighthouse.org/) They also opened up affiliate schools in Mississippi and overseas. They focus on how to deal with children with disabilities. It doesn’t cost the parents anything. They have physical and speech therapists. Early intervention makes a tremendous difference. Their leadership helped Kenzi when she transitioned into Kindergarten. She was able to have inclusion at an earlier year before she went into public schools. There are so many charities that have been such an important part of our lives. They gave her such a great foundation.
To contact Mike Burnside for additional information about their hunting, fishing and activities for those with special needs or for an interview, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org