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Student’s kindness and energy remembered by friends and teachers

Published Feb. 1, 2024


Mackenzie partook in the celebratory tradition of ringing the bell following completion of radiation treatment in 2023. (courtesy of CHRISTINE KELSO)

When Mackenzie Dykstra finished radiation treatment each day, her mother, Christine Kelso, would wheel her around hotel hallways in a bell cart while they played music and danced along. They would swim, then sit in the sun.

“Mac was larger than life,” recalls Kelso. “And she wanted to live life to the fullest.”

The sophomore, also a first-year student in Auto Shop at CHS, loved cars and Kendrick Lamar and was an avid volleyball player for both her school and a competitive club team. Mackenzie Dykstra passed away due to a brain tumor Dec. 24, but not before leaving a lasting impact on her friends, teachers, coaches and family through her spirited personality and unfaltering smile.

Mackenzie and her mother, Christine Kelso, went to great lengths to make the hotel they stayed in for treatment feel like a home, including through normal celebrations. (courtesy of CHRISTINE KELSO)

“Mackenzie marched up to me as a ball of energy. Vivacious, excited, animated,” says Brodie Greer, who coached Dykstra’s frosh-soph volleyball team her freshman year. “As a coach, you want Mackenzie’s attitude and energy on your team, in any sport.”

The coach adds that Mackenzie made a point of greeting him enthusiastically at the beginning of every practice, and he fondly remembers the subtly sassy eye-roll she would give in response to his suggestions before implementing them. Through Greer’s pre-season summer workouts, Mackenzie met sophomore Kayla Higson, and between practices, games and tournaments, the two girls became close friends.

“We drove to practices together during club,” Higson says. “We would always get Starbucks or Jamba Juice. And she would always be singing or dancing around in the car.”

According to Kelso’s fiancé, Michael Sardina, affectionately referred to as Mackenzie’s “bonus dad,” the volleyball libero did not abandon that practice all throughout her cancer treatment. Whether she was dancing down the hall after radiation treatment, in her room or at school, she wouldn’t be stopped.

Mackenzie’s freshman-year volleyball season was cut short when, at a game against Hollister, she dislocated her shoulder during a dig. Though her injury was a loss for both her and her team, it was that night she first met then-CHS sophomore Nico Vitiello, whom she went on to date for the seven months leading up to her passing.

Although Mackenzie celebrated her 16th birthday during cancer treatment, she was surrounded by friends and family, including her boyfriend, junior Nico Vitiello. (courtesy of CHRISTINE KELSO)

“Between the diagnoses, the surgeries, the constant tests, blood draws, everything, Mac would just deal with it with a smile on her face,” says Vitiello, who visited and stayed with Mackenzie frequently throughout her treatments. “And she would always be kind to the people around her, especially in the medical profession and their students working at Stanford as well.”

Those who knew Mackenzie agree that “kindness” is a key word to describe her. Her mom recounts that whenever her daughter saw younger children who were also undergoing treatment at the Stanford hospital, Mackenzie would go to great lengths to make them smile and help them feel comfortable with the constant presence of needles and doctors that accompanies long-term medical treatment. Higson, among the sophomore’s other friends, found Mackenzie to be supportive, easy to talk to and a source of sound advice.

Mackenzie Dykstra’s enthusiasm for life also carried over to academics, where her teachers remember her engagement in the classroom.

Kelso treasured a close relationship with Mackenzie all throughout her daughter’s life. (courtesy of CHRISTINE KELSO)

“You could tell she was happy to be in class,” says CHS history teacher Bruce Dini. 

Vitiello also noticed a great appreciation for life in Mackenzie. According to him, she seized every possible day. Even once she had lost most of her motor control on her left side, they drove to Gizdich Ranch in Watsonville to enjoy the world’s best pie for their final date. Her family adds that when she was living away from home for treatment, she kept a camera in her room at home to check in on her cockatiel Mango.

The athlete played volleyball both for CHS and for Sand City Volleyball Club. (courtesy of CHRISTINE KELSO)

Mackenzie was diagnosed in May with a grade 4 Glioma brain tumor following a seizure on May 24. On June 21, she underwent a 10-hour surgery to remove the tumor before receiving six weeks of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Despite its length and intensity, the surgery could not quell Mackenzie’s energy and determination. Just days later, she walked out of the hospital on her own, a feat unheard of at the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford.

Mackenzie Dykstra’s positive energy made a lasting impression on those she met, including her doctors and technicians at Stanford, as well as her classmates at CHS. In honor of her life and battle against cancer, her family is inviting donations to the Crayon Initiative, which recycles used crayons to provide coloring implements to hospitalized children across the country. Her mom explains that given the way Mackenzie concentrated on the well-being and happiness of others, she could not think of a more fitting cause than to bring smiles to the faces of children fighting similar battles. 

The link to donate to Mackenzie’s fund is https://give.thecrayoninitiative.org/campaign/in-honor-of-mackenzie-dykstra/c550694.

Latest comments

  • Beautifully written

  • It seems like yesterday and also a lifetime since we had to say goodbye. I was amazed at her grace and strength in every step of her battle. Thank you, Mac, for teaching my son how to live, how to love and how to walk through fire. We were all so blessed to have you in our lives and your ability to permeat our souls, in such a short time, speaks volumes of who you are.

    I miss you immensely sweet girl!

  • What a beautiful life full of positivity, laughter and joy. It is a testament to how important to live each day fully. God bless

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