Young author donates book proceeds to Haiti relief

Meredith Flynn —  August 26, 2013
“Leila’s Big Difference” is 7-year-old Mackenzie Howell’s latest project to help Haiti. Photo by Kristi Burden

“Leila’s Big Difference” is 7-year-old Mackenzie Howell’s latest project to help Haiti. Photo by Kristi Burden

NEWS | August 26, 2013

On the first page of “Leila’s Big Difference” by Mackenzie Howell, a little girl stands with her arms crossed as the words “Too Little” float around her.

As the baby of her Haitian family, Leila sometimes feels held back by her youth. But when a teacher tells her class the story of a young shepherd who kills a giant that’s been menacing his community, it inspires Leila and her schoolmates to band together to make a difference.

First-time author Mackenzie likely can empathize with her main character. The 7-year-old Texan started trying to make a difference in Haiti when she was just five years old. The book is her latest project to raise money for relief efforts in the country where hundreds of thousands were displaced after a massive earthquake three years ago.

The first 400 copies of “Leila’s Big Difference” are nearly sold out, and Mackenzie has spoken at two local churches about the project. Her story was also featured in the Beaumont Enterprise newspaper. She has already sent $1,565 in book sales to the Illinois Baptist State Association for continued work in Haiti.

“When you hear about missions in action, Mackenzie is a true example,” said Bob Elmore, IBSA’s short-term missions coordinator, who has led several mission teams from Illinois to Haiti since the quake. “Her heart was touched by a need, she determined what she could do and didn’t limit herself. Her efforts are truly making a difference.

“This is commendable for anyone, but astounding for a 7-year-old.”

It started two years ago, when Mackenzie saw a TV show about the one-year anniversary of the earthquake and told her mom she wanted to do something to help. The Howells organized a coin drive at her preschool and a bake sale at their church. They raised more than $1,400 and sent the money to International Mission Board missionaries Jo and David Brown, who were instrumental in the re-building process.

The missionaries then connected Mackenzie with Elmore and IBSA’s continued work in Haiti through short-term mission trips. She sent IBSA the proceeds from her next project – selling homemade sidewalk chalk, playdoh, crayons and finger paints through a local mall’s program for enterprising kids. Her donation helped build a church in Port-au-Prince that doubles as a school.

This summer, with a 15-month-old brother in the house, Mackenzie decided she needed a project he couldn’t get in the middle of. “So we decided to do a book,” she said.

She enlisted the help of Jace Theriot, a 9-year-old in the Sunday School class her mom teaches at their church, Hillcrest Baptist in Nederland, Texas. Jace illustrated Mackenzie’s story, giving life to Leila, her kind-hearted teacher Mr. Bertin, and her lush homeland.

The two recently had a signing party where they autographed 150 copies of their book. And ate pizza and cookies, Mackenzie added.

Watching her daughter “gives me such an appreciation of the Lord being willing to use us,” Alison Howell said. “Because for her, the calling is so clear, and we could see how genuine it was, that it reminded me that the Lord really wants to use us.”

Mackenzie corresponded with Elmore as she created the story, e-mailing him questions about Haiti. Alison said he asked the questions of a young boy and girl in Haiti, so Mackenzie could use their input too. The young writer also researched the country online.

“She was so adamant,” Alison said about her daughter’s will to write the book. “And that’s been the really neat thing in this process, that she has wanted to do this. She has had the passion. Not one time has she said, ‘Mom, this is getting old,’ or ‘I don’t want to work on this story.’”

And while the book has made Mackenzie a bit of a local celebrity, her parents are careful to remind her of the spiritual lessons she’s learning.

“One of the things we’ve learned…is how blessed we are to live in America, and how much we have,” Alison said. “And so we’ve tried to teach her that when much is given to you, much is expected from you.”

“Leila’s Big Difference” by Mackenzie Howell is available for order here.

Meredith Flynn

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Meredith is managing editor of the Illinois Baptist newspaper.