A Force of Good McKEnna Reiter's 18th Birthday


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Gifted By: Jeff Reiter

McKenna Reiter watched, wide-eyed, as world-famous primatologist Dian Fossey took on Rwandan poachers. The lives of local mountain gorillas, and gorillas as a species, hung in the balance.

“She has a torch, a fire inside of her.”

Her dad had rented the 1988 movie “Gorillas in the Mist” and McKenna was mesmerized. More so, inspired. While the credits rolled, her desire to protect and save the innocent animals of this world solidified.

“She wants to be the Jane Goodall of this age,” McKenna’s sister, Bailey, said, “which I can definitely see her doing. She has the fight in her to do that.”

McKenna’s had a fight in her since childhood, her father, Jeff said. She’s always been able to “make herself be heard,” whether that be with her powerful lungs as a baby or her impassioned speeches as a young adult.

But McKenna’s also energetic, loving, sensitive, fierce, playful, independent, relaxed, stylish, and, above all, hilarious.

“Her humor, her sensitivity to people and animals and the world around her, are always present,” Jeff said, “and the two combine to a certain charm.”

A charm that makes her a pleasure to simply be around.

“I love her deeply and I like her deeply,” Jeff said. “I think all fathers love their children, but I don’t think all fathers like their kids. I really, really like her. She has a lot of qualities that I really admire and enjoy.”


Bailey looks forward to the days she can come home, plop into bed with McKenna, and just chat. Together, they can do anything, or nothing at all, and still have a good time.

“We don’t have to keep going, going, going to have fun,” Bailey said. “We’ll just be playing with our dogs and dying laughing.”

Jeff, however, said seeing the world is his favorite thing to do with his youngest daughter.

“She’s open to new people and new cultures and new ways of thinking,” Jeff said. “So I love exploring and traveling with her for that reason.”

McKenna’s been on her fair share of trips abroad, including to China and Tanzania with her father and sister, and Germany on her own for a foreign exchange program: an experience that took courage and finesse to do, her sister said.

And that’s only the beginning for McKenna.

“We’ll probably never see her because she’ll be traveling all over,” Bailey said, “saving animals.”


McKenna has always maintained her dream of protecting endangered animals. She’s volunteered as much as possible for various animal charities, joined and donated to the organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and even has become a vegetarian, which was not the easiest achievement for a meat-lover.

“I don’t think any of us who knew her eating habits thought she could do it, but she hasn’t looked back,” Jeff said.

Her grandmother, Sydney, is extremely proud of her granddaughter for sticking to the vegetarian diet, even though it can be a challenge (especially with her diabetes).

But McKenna’s never one to back down from any challenge.


“I think her biggest accomplishment is pushing past all her illnesses, all her setbacks — she never lets it slow her down,” Bailey said.

McKenna has had a number of hospital stays and physical ailments since she was a young girl. She’s been diagnosed with dysautonomia, meningitis and type 1 diabetes, among others. The former caused her to have upwards of ten fainting spells in a single day, while the latter completely changed her life.

“She doesn’t act like a victim to her illness,” Sydney said. “She might be mad about them, she might be frustrated, but she doesn’t do a victim whiny thing and that’s very admirable.”

“I think all fathers love their children, but I don’t think all fathers like their kids. I really, really like her.”

In fact, McKenna became an ambassador for the Tour de Cure not long after she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. As an ambassador she was a face for diabetes and spoke to crowds about her experiences as being a child with the disease. She also raised money for the charity.

“She could bring in a lot of money, that girl,” Bailey said. “She knew how to work a crowd. And she put a smile on your face as she did it.”

McKenna’s cousin, Kendall Wyllie, said she’s proud of McKenna for all the advocacy work she did (and does) on behalf of the diabetes community. And, she said, McKenna’s resilience inspires her.

“She had modeled for me how to get up after life has knocked you down,” Kendall said.


McKenna went on to graduate high school with a high GPA, having been accepted to all the colleges she applied to.

“I want to tell her I’m proud of her,” Bailey said, “and I support all her decisions — even if we argue about them.”

In the fall of 2017 McKenna will attend University of Central Florida and will pursue zoology and primatology in the hopes to be an advocate for the endangered animals of the world.

Already McKenna’s on a path to change the world — beginning with those close to her.

Kendall reflected on a (somewhat) recent visit she took to McKenna’s home in Florida. They had a leisurely day eating and lounging by the pool. It was then Kendall realized how mature her cousin really was.

“We had discussions about life, goals, set backs, illness and more,” Kendall said. “She was her own authentic self able to passionately explain and defend her convictions.”

McKenna’s had a profound influence on every member of her family in some capacity or another, whether that be in life (Bailey said Mckenna’s pushed her to live her life to the fullest) or with regards to animals. Her grandfather, Jim, said she’s influenced him to fight against animal cruelty. Her father said he’s now forced to buy organic, free-range and local foods.

“She’s a powerful person in her own right, but I don’t think she really knows that about herself yet,” Sydney said.

It will take time to come into that power, Sydney added. Jeff agreed and said that changing the world won’t exactly be an easy feat, but her struggle will only make her a better person.

“I think that as McKenna becomes a woman, all the struggles that she’s gone through so far and will go through, will create a really deep human being,” Jeff said, “who’s passionate, compassionate, sensitive, intelligent and will just have a wealth of information and experience to draw on to make a difference in this world.”

“She has a torch, a fire inside of her,” Jeff said. ♦

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Photos from Jeff Reiter

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