Mark Story

Mark Story: Girl's answer to pain becomes gain for other children

Sheltering Books founder Mackenzie Bearup read a book to children at one site where she had made a recent delivery.
Sheltering Books founder Mackenzie Bearup read a book to children at one site where she had made a recent delivery.

On a night seven years ago, Mackenzie Bearup, then 10, was bouncing up and down on her bed while grooving to the singing of Ruben Studdard on American Idol.

What happened when the music stopped changed her life.

"I sat down, and my knee just started hurting," the Alpharetta, Ga., teen, now 17, said last week. "It was weird, there wasn't any 'snap,' I didn't fall, it just started hurting."

By the following morning, Mackenzie says her left knee had swollen to the size of a grapefruit. "It felt like a bomb went off inside my knee," she said.

Over the coming months, things got more frustrating for Mackenzie, the daughter of one former Kentucky Wildcats basketball player (1980s-era forward Bret Bearup) and the niece of another (1990-91 reserve guard Todd Bearup).

Doctors initially could not find an injury that would explain why Mackenzie was feeling so much pain. In at least one instance, Beth Ann Bearup says a cast applied to her daughter's leg might have made things worse.

Many a day, her knee hurting so bad she couldn't get out of bed, Mackenzie craved something to take her mind off the pain.

In an iPod world, she found relief in a most old-school way.

Reading books.

"The Princess Diaries series was my escape," Mackenzie said. "It was the only thing that got me through it."

Actually, it did more than that. Her "relief through reading" experience soon inspired Mackenzie to try to provide the same escape hatch for other children trapped in difficult circumstances.

Which is why a charity launched by a teenage girl in Georgia has now dispensed more than 51,000 books to shelters for abused and impoverished children around the country, including in Kentucky.

Inspiration in doctor visit

Doctors eventually determined that the issue in Mackenzie's knee was caused by a condition known as reflex sympathetic dystrophy.

The malady, also known as complex regional pain syndrome, leads to "intense pain out of proportion to the injury, which gets worse rather than better over time," says the Web site of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Doctors cannot cure the condition because the causes of RSD are not known. "They can do some things that help with the pain," Mackenzie said. "But you always are subject to the pain coming back on any day."

Well after Mackenzie's condition was diagnosed, she was visiting her pediatrician, who in passing asked what she had done to get through the pain. When Mackenzie told her about reading, the pediatrician asked what she had done with her books.

Turns out the doctor was a board member at Murphy-Harpst Children's Center in Cedartown, Ga., a residential treatment center for Georgia's most severely abused children. "She said they wanted to open a library there for the kids," Mackenzie said.

In that moment, the light of inspiration switched on for Mackenzie.

She decided she would do more than donate her own books. Mackenzie hit up her friends, relatives and neighbors to see if they had any children's books to contribute. Soon, she even had fliers distributed around her neighborhood asking for books.

The goal when she started was to donate 300 books to Murphy-Harpst. Instead, Mackenzie's first drive yielded 3,000.

She kept going. Even after she had filled the Murphy-Harpst library to bursting, Mackenzie was just getting started. Over time, she started a Web site, licensed her book drive as an official charity and spread her focus beyond Georgia.

As of this month, Sheltering Books Inc., Mackenzie's charity, has donated more than 51,000 books to organizations in seven states — Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey and Kentucky.

(For information on donating books or money, visit the Web site. In Central Kentucky, you can drop book donations off at Leather, Inc. The store at Lexington Green is owned by Mackenzie's maternal uncle, Ken Clark.)

A garage full of books

Mackenzie and her mom, Beth Ann, do much of the work. Sometimes brothers Alex, 15, and Benjamin, 12, pitch in.

"Our garage is stacked full with books. They are everywhere you can see," Beth Ann said. "We just shipped a donation to New Jersey. Mackenzie's goal is to get into all 50 states."

Mackenzie's first book donation in the commonwealth was special. Her mom is from Graves County, so they chose The Lighthouse in Mayfield, a facility that serves abused women and children.

"It had to be 1,200 books (Mackenzie) donated," says Traci Lawrence, executive director of The Lighthouse. "We unpacked books forever. She gave us a resource we did not have."

The story of a teenager who used reading to get through a tough period in her life and who is now working to give other kids in difficult circumstances the same chance has proven irresistible to the media.

Mackenzie has been featured on the CNN Heroes series and the NBC Nightly News "Making A Difference" segment. The Huffington Post named her its "Greatest Person of the Day" for Nov. 19.

"I know how much reading meant to me when I really needed something," Mackenzie says. "There are so many kids who would find the same thing if they just had the chance. We're trying to give as many of them as possible that chance."