Student leaves to help rebuild New Orleans

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

ALBANY, Ga. -- Mackenzie Bloing had 10 options to choose from after being accepted into the People to People World Leadership Program.

Being able do a hands-on activity and meeting Super Bowl MVPs Peyton and Eli Manning were three of the main reasons the Robert Cross Middle Magnet School student wanted to participate in People to People's "Rebuilding New Orleans: Remembering Hurricane Katrina" nine-day summit. The program begins today and runs through July 6.

Makenzie, 13, will learn about leadership and global awareness in the academically challenging program. She was nominated to participate in the program by Robert Cross teacher Jacquelyn Scott. Makenzie was accepted for the honor based on her "outstanding scholastic merit, civic involvement and leadership potential," according to a news release from the organization which was founded by Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956 during his presidency.

In addition to meeting the Manning brothers, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and "When the Levees Broke" director Spike Lee, she will help to rebuild a school hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. She will also visit the homes and people whose lives were shattered by what the National Hurricane Center describes as "one of the most devastating natural disasters" in U.S. history. An estimated 1,500 people died as a result of the storm.

"We don't know much about the school itself," said Makenzie, who plays the cello in Robert Cross' orchestra. "I like to do community service. I do Girls Scouts. I'm in 40268 troop at Avalon Methodist Church. We are one of the biggest troops in Albany and we do a lot of community service and charity work. We go to nursing homes and sing. We help people who need it and can't fend for themselves."

Makenzie flew as an unaccompanied minor on two planes to reach New Orleans. She will stay at Tulane University dormitories. After meeting other leadership group members, Makenzie will hear tonight from retired Lt. Gen. Russell Honore, who led Task Force Katrina, about how his troops addressed the challenges after the hurricane made landfall. She'll later hear from "Why New Orleans Matters" author Tom Piazza, and explore a former plantation and the Louisiana bayou by boat. On July Fourth, she'll watch a fireworks display and complete her trip July 5 by meeting Rice, the Mannings and enjoy a Mardi Gras-style gala with Creole cuisine.

"I love my teacher Ms. Scott, my parents who support me and my friends as well," said Makenzie, who has lived in Albany 4 1/2 years after moving from Hampton County, S.C. "I am a Colts fan and we all love the Giants and the Saints."

Makenzie said she's already gotten to know other students going on the trip through online social networking. Although she has never visited New Orleans before, Makenzie's mother, Elizabeth, said her outgoing daughter has an adventurous nature and has experienced quite a lot despite her years. In addition to scuba diving, snorkeling, white water rafting, snow skiing, parasailing and hang gliding, Makenzie has also swam with dolphins, manatees and sea lions.

"We stand in awe of her because Makenzie is absolutely fearless," said Elizabeth, who has been married 14 years to Dr. Bob Bloing.

She then added jokingly, "Now, I wish she could only clean her room, vacuum and spell."

Her father said Makenzie is also quite a climber. Bob Bloing flew helicopters in combat in Vietnam and was a police officer for 15 years in Flint, Mich., before he broke his back chasing a criminal. Following the accident, he went back to school to become a physician and eventually came to Albany as an anesthesiologist at Palmyra Medical Center.

"She's a rock climbing fool," said Bob Bloing of his daughter, who scaled a natural 50-foot tall rock wall six times. "She climbs better than any boy."

Makenzie and her younger brother, Andrew, playfully keep each other on their toes. As Makenzie puts it, "we're separated by two years, two months, two weeks and two days."

"She defends me no matter what, unless she's beating me up," laughed Andrew, a rising Robert Cross sixth-grader who videotaped The Herald interview. "She's pretty and smart. I won't miss her, but it'll be quiet."