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Familiar Faces: Derek McKenzie is "Mr. D" at DIS
By Elizabeth Bush
May 1, 2013 - 9:05:25 AM

Derek McKenzie has been part of the Daniel Island School staff since 2008, when he started working with the Ocean Club after school program. His students know him as "Mr. D".
Derek McKenzie poses with a group of children from the Ocean Club at Daniel Island School.

It’s four o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon and the park behind Daniel Island School is buzzing with a swarm of children happily hopping from one activity to the next.  Class time ended a little over an hour ago, and the students enrolled in the “Ocean Club” afterschool program are ready to play.
Under the shade of a young oak tree, as controlled chaos whirls around him on the playground, Derek McKenzie gently weaves together the strands of a new sweetgrass basket he is making. It is an art taught to him by his aunt. Derek is both an Ocean Club counselor and instructional assistant at Daniel Island School. Today, he is sharing his hobby with an attentive audience of kindergartners.   
“You’ve got a ladybug on your shirt,” one student tells him, clearly indicative of how the topic of conversation can change with the wind.
After the little winged visitor is removed from Derek’s shirt, focus shifts to his new puppy, Roscoe, who has come to join in the fun.
“He was the cutest one (in the litter),” Derek tells the kids. “…And he loves to eat wood chips!”
The children erupt in giggles as Roscoe scurries about between their legs. The turn of events is par for the course, adds Derek, who relishes the opportunity to see life through the kids’ eyes.  
“I run, jump, have fun and do whatever the kindergartners say…and they say the darndest things! I try to answer every question…This is the year of ‘why.’”
One of 11 children, Derek certainly knows how to handle meeting the needs of those in his care. His mother, who passed away 11 years ago, was his biggest inspiration. She taught him to have love and compassion for children.
“I (originally) wanted to go into the military,” says Derek, who earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Allen University. “My mom had all of us and she babysat as well. So she had us, plus a lot of other kids and she took such good care of them. I thought ‘I am going to go to school and work with kids!’”
The McClellanville native, who now lives off Clements Ferry Road, came to work at the Daniel Island School five years ago to help staff the Ocean Club. Last year, he began working during the day as an instructional assistant for Kingsley Feinman, a student with cerebral palsy. The experience has been all that Derek hoped for and more.
“I stay with Kingsley during the day,” says Derek, who calls Kingsley his best friend. “I do a little therapy, stretching him, standing him up. We do math and science and social studies. I try to keep him with his peers because he loves being with (them). I told him just because he has cerebral palsy doesn’t mean he is limited to anything. He can do whatever the kids here do.”
Their relationship has grown stronger over the time they have spent together this school year. Derek isn’t sure who helps the other more.
“He has taught me patience,” he says. “…If I ever come to school like I’ve had a bad day, he’ll talk me through it. That’s the bottom line with Kingsley. When I come to Ocean Club, that patience kicks in!”  
After school, Derek’s main duty is to keep the kids engaged.
“I organize activities for them. Make sure they are active with each other and keep them busy. I tell the parents I will keep them busy so when they come home they’ll shower and go to bed!...We have a lot of fun. I think getting out here and running around with them makes me feel young!”
Watching from the sidelines, it’s easy to see that Derek likes to keep his charges entertained, while paying attention to safety and anything else that comes up.
“Anthony, be careful!” he says to a boy riding by on a skateboard.
Next, he asks a group of second graders about a “Wax Museum” held that day, in which the students dressed up as their favorite characters in history.
“What do you know about Susan B. Anthony?” he inquires of a student still dressed in her costume.
Within minutes, he is playing catch with another child while a little girl wearing a gymnast outfit asks him to watch her practice a handstand in the grass. Soon, the scene changes yet again as a teary-eyed youngster walks up with his face in his hands after being poked in the eye.
“Are you OK?” Derek asks him. “Blink, blink, blink…you’re good!” And the child runs off to rejoin his friends.
“If I had a good day, can I have a treat?” another little voice asks Derek, who often gives children a piece of candy at the end of the week for good behavior.
“They work hard on getting those treats!” Derek says. “I might need to save the candy for Progress Reports.”
No matter what grades come in on report cards, it is clear that Derek has already earned high marks from his students.
“He’s the best kindergarten teacher ever,” says Tysa Rampulla. “…He’s kind and caring.”
“He’s really nice,” adds Jenna Johnson.
But perhaps the best review of Mr. D, as his students affectionately call him, comes from a youngster named Brighton, who comes up to offer three words that surely melt his heart and make it all worthwhile.
“I love you.”

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