A few months ago before the world went mad, and in the early weeks of COVID, I had the opportunity to talk to Lisa McKenzie, the most extraordinary human. Lisa began her career as an events planner and entrepreneur. Life had a different plan for her. Lisa was running a company called Ooh La Bra when her life took a turn. Using all her gifts in business and event planning came this opportunity to make an enormous difference for women recovering from cancer. Lisa founded the We Lift You Up Fund with multiple programs to support women recovering from cancer. She is a true inspiration and a bright light in our crazy world.
CHARITY MATTERS: TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT WHAT WE LIFT YOU UP FOUNDATION DOES?
Lisa McKenzie: We create empowering group experiences for women with cancer. For a lot of women, the scary part is when they are released from the care of their physicians and friends think they are “cured.” The survivor feels like she came back from a war zone and she is still in the trenches.
Their bodies might be totally mutilated, or their relationships are severed, and now they’re living with the constant fear of recurrence. And then, of course, just the damage it does to a lot of families financially, just to the family structure itself, the kids are scared, and so, we are that part that picks up from that point. Doctors and hospitals will refer the patients to us because they don’t have time to deal with the emotional struggle, right? So if they’re sitting in a waiting room with a woman, and she starts expressing any kind of fallout, they’ll say, call We Lift You Up and so our organization is comprised of all survivors, and by the way, I’m not one.
CHARITY MATTERS: WOW, THAT IS SO INTERESTING. SO WHAT WAS THE MOMENT YOU KNEW YOU NEEDED TO ACT AND START WE LIFT YOU UP?
Lisa McKenzie: My mom is a cancer survivor but actually I have two friends who were the catalyst for all of this. So I was watching these two women who were movers and shakers in society completely confident, you know, going along with their lives and often they both got cancer and they totally changed, their physique changed, their confidence changed. Meanwhile, though, I had just come out of two years of total darkness because my marriage crumbled, my husband had cheated on me. And I went from this peppy person, a leader, confident and happy, and then all of a sudden I was dealing with clinical depression.
Over time little resources, like the book The Power of Intention by Wayne Dyer started filling my mind with truth. I woke up one morning knowing that I didn’t want to feel miserable anymore. I had been a prisoner of my own mind and I began to find positive messages to retrain my mind and I began listening to podcasts and read books with positive messages
God still had a perfect story for me. I was running an accessory company and the tag line was, “We lift you up.” I wanted to do a runway show to model my product and I decided to use my friends who had had cancer and that was the beginning of You Night. After that first runway show, I approached the hospital and said I would love to gift this experience to cancer survivors. These survivors walked a runway in front of 500 people, their families, doctors, and nurses cheering them on.
You’re like you’re cheering for these ladies, not because they have a pretty gown on or because their hair looks beautiful, right? They have fire in their eyes. That is like, you just you could feel it in the air. There’s so much energy coming from these ladies. So it’s like a pay it forward program because in the audience are the women who are bald and defeated and thinking I’ll have whatever that runway model just had.
CHARITY MATTERS: WHAT ARE YOUR BIGGEST CHALLENGES?
Lisa McKenzie: I’ve always wondered why can’t people collaborate who are doing good things? Why does this happen? When you offer something for free in emotional support sometimes we can end up with more than we can handle. If we are doing the best work we can to serve humanity then why are we judged for our overhead as nonprofits? My motivation is so pure, why would people question your intentions? These challenges became the catalyst to stay in my lane and stay the course.
CHARITY MATTERS: WHAT FUELS YOU TO KEEP DOING THIS WORK?
Lisa McKenzie: The women. I have actually heard women say, “I’m glad I got cancer so I can join this organization.” Oh my God, because they have learned things about themselves that would have never been possible. And one of them who had stage four cancer said, “I wasn’t giving myself permission to smile anymore because I’ve labeled myself as a stage four cancer survivor. I thought that that’s like my death sentence and my black cloud.” Now she said, because of us now she can smile. We provide opportunities for people to find their smile again and say, yes, you do still have permission to enjoy life.
My other inspiration are the children who come to see their mother’s walk the runway. So there was this little girl she was probably eight years old and her mom is a mom of four really who was really sick, like 70 tumors, and struggling. But this little girl followed her mom the whole way down the stage, and then followed her mom back. When she went home that night, she got this box and scissors and fabric and her Barbies. Her mom’s said, “What are you doing?” She said,” I want to design gowns for Barbies that make them feel as beautiful as you looked on stage.” Oh my god, the stories.
CHARITY MATTERS: WHEN DO YOU KNOW YOU HAVE MADE A DIFFERENCE?
Lisa McKenzie: I will tell you because there are endless stories of women’s lives we changed, like just to give you an example, a woman who calls and is suicidal and comes to the very first meeting and has her shoulders slumped and she’s got a chemo beanie on and she’s looking down at the ground. Then, slowly but surely you start seeing week after week and get together after get together, her posture changes. And then after she graduates, and after they get all this encouragement and attitude they want to go forward and be part of the organization. So I have 50 volunteer participant leaders who are all not on the payroll and are graduates of the program..
We sort of realized that our empowerment experience is a two year experience, the first year is giving them back their own self-esteem and their life and their attitude. And then pulling out you find out so many things about them like they’re amazing skills, and these are women are not defined by cancer.
CHARITY MATTERS: TELL US WHAT SUCCESS YOU HAVE HAD AND ABOUT YOUR IMPACT?
Lisa McKenzie: Give people a literal platform. We have done 14 runway shows in seven years with two classes of fifty women a year. The show is a huge celebration. We show photos from their worst moments and the most painful pictures of their journey. The storytelling allows them to be real and the oncologist says they can tell the difference between women who have been through You Night vs those who have not.
CHARITY MATTERS: IF YOU COULD DREAM ANY DREAM FOR YOUR ORGANIZATION, WHAT WOULD THAT BE?
Lisa McKenzie: To have a women’s conference, Tony Robbins style and fill a stadium with cancer survivors. Scaling to grow the You Night runway to raise awareness for emotional care in survivorship.
CHARITY MATTERS: WHAT LIFE LESSONS HAVE YOU LEARNED FROM THIS EXPERIENCE?
Lisa McKenzie: The first lesson is that I can leave a legacy for my daughter by showing her by example that you can use your talents and skills to help others. I can plant a seed of compassion in my children to carry on for generations.
The second lesson is that we live in one of the kindest worlds you can imagine. I can not believe how many really good people there are who want to help. I have never seen so much love and kindness back and forth between people. The love is the addiction.
CHARITY MATTERS: HOW HAS THIS JOURNEY CHANGED YOU?
Lisa McKenzie: I have learned to be more organic in how life unfolds. You can have a pity party and be at peace at the same time. I’m learning to let God unfold the story at his pace.