Meet Our Founder

Our founder - Lorraine Kerwood McKenzie

Lorraine, grew up in a family of 11 children. Her childhood was rough in a number of ways, including the fact that school was always a struggle. Very early on, Lorraine was labeled a special education child, and the combination of all these things resulted in her never believing she had any intelligence, that she could ever "be" anything—or even that she could compete on an equal footing with other people. She received a variety of mental health labels during her youth including, psychotic, schizophrenic, dissociative identity disorder, among others.

After 25 years of working class jobs, Lorraine was injured in a car accident and was forced to retrain. Her family urged her to try college. Lorraine resisted when she learned students had to use computers. The computer was a symbol of "what smart people" use—and this was a barrier to her understanding that she could be successful in school. During this time, Lorraine was diagnosed with Aspergers syndrome, which she reports was “one of the greatest moments in my life, it explained the world to me.” Suddenly, life made more sense. Before the diagnosis, “I spent years thinking I was stupid, inferior, and a danger to others. When I was diagnosed autistic, I discovered my intelligence and capabilities. For that, I am forever grateful”. After additional prodding by her family, she enrolled in an adult education computer class to see if she could learn how to use a computer.

Lorraine was fortunate to have had a patient and supportive teacher and discovered that, like others who fall on the Autistic Spectrum, the computer was very friendly and a great communication tool. To her shock and amazement, Lorraine ended up graduating Magna Cum Laude from the University of Oregon, with a Bachelor's of Education degree in Family and Community Services. 

Degree in hand, she went to work as a Social Service Specialist in the Oregon Department of Child Welfare in 2000, out of a desire to help children who were in situations similar to those in her own life. Because of her own struggles, Lorraine has always been determined to do whatever she could to make life easier for other children than it was for her growing up. Technology ended up being the tool she needed.

After her first computer died, Lorraine discovered she had a knack at fixing computers, and so she set about finding old ones, refurbishing them, and then gifting them to children and families who couldn’t afford to buy them—many of these recipients were the people with whom she was working at Child Welfare. She quickly discovered that demand, and need, was very high.

She found some other folks in her community who were interested in refurbishing computers and had the desire to address the digital divide, but not the means to find community members who needed access to technology. She brought the hobbyists, the geeks, and those who needed computers together.

In 2004 she took a giant leap: she quit her job and moved her little enterprise out of the garage into a real warehouse. Lorraine continued to work on building services and programs to address the needs of the community and today NextStep is a thriving community service organization with 33 employees, 10 volunteer ReUse Ambassadors, an ongoing group of Lane County Master Recyclers, and hundreds of volunteers. 

NextStep now occupies over 35,000 square feet in two separate locations—much of which is used to offer free job training for community members. To date, NextStep has trained over 10,000 individuals, many who are on the autism spectrum. Lane County, OR has one of the highest autism rates in the nation – one in every 90 children are diagnosed as having autism in the community. 

Lorraine has modeled her belief that everyone can participate in education and has gone on to earn her Masters in Social Work.

Lorraine continues to provide support and guidance to the organization she founded as a volunteer. Lorraine is a member of the DEQ Oregon E-Cycles workgroup and a City of Eugene Human Rights Commissioner. She is a member of the National Association of Social Workers and the Social Welfare Action Alliance. She is a member of the Kindtree Autism Productions - Autism Rocks Board of Directors as well as a member of the Better Eugene-Springfield Transit Board of Advisors. She is a past co-founder and Board Member of the GreenLane Sustainable Business Network, a member of the Lane Community College Computer Information Technology Advisory Committee, and is a proud Lane County Master Recycler. Lorraine is a passionate advocate for people on the autism spectrum, for trauma survivors, and for people who experience disabilities. Lorraine believes that all people are brilliant, no matter what label they carry, and should be treated with respect and dignity.

Watch Lorraine's story on YouTube

Lorraine has received the following awards:
2012: L'Oréal Paris Women of Worth
2011: Governor John Kitzhaber Oregon Change Agent Award
2010: Soroptomist International Junction City Chapter, Ruby Award
2010: Lane Community College Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Award for Social Justice
2009: etown E-Acheivement Award sponsored by the Bohemia Foundation
2009: People We Love, in Yes! Magazine
2008: Volvo for Life, American Home Town Hero Award for the Environment
2008: Health Hero, Prevention Magazine
2008: Heroes Among Us, People Magazine
2008: Lane Community College Distinguished Alumni Award
2008 Eugene Chamber of Commerce Women's Business Leader of the Year
2003 Lane County Commissioners TrashBuster Award Individual category

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